Behind The Scenes At The British Library

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 10 months ago

Last Updated 31 August 2023

Behind The Scenes At The British Library

The British Library turned 50 years old on 1 July 2023 — as an establishment, anyway. The terracotta-hued complex in St Pancras didn't actually open until 1997. To mark the half-century milestone, we took a tour — discovering an underground conveyor belt, a library within a library, and some very special books.

The building — a ship-shape masterpiece

Black and white image of the library under construction
The British Library is newer than you might think. Image: British Library

Not everything at the British Library is what it seems.

Strolling across the piazza towards the entrance, you are actually walking on the roof of a four-story building — stepping over the top of 14 million books. While an institution with a name like 'The British Library' sounds as storied as a bottle of claret from the mid 1700s, it's only been around since 1973, as a result of the British Library Act. Before then, many of the nation's books and manuscripts were held at the British Museum.

A wide shot of the redbrick building's entrance
Image: Londonist

The St Pancras building — designed by Colin St John Wilson — is a mere whippersnapper, only opening in 1997. The initial designs were being drafted from as early as 1962, and Wilson found himself constantly tweaking his plans, as feet-dragging funders turned the creation of the building into a decades-long marathon. It got there in the end, its facade positively glowing with 11 million red bricks hewn from the same Leicestershire quarry as those from the neighbouring St Pancras Renaissance hotel. (The quarry has now been mined dry.) Look closer: each brick is smiling at you.

Something else you mightn't have clocked: the building is ship-shape — quite literally. Wilson was formerly in the navy: "One thing he discovered" explains Kevin Mehmet, Visitor Experience Assistant at the British Library, "is the concept of naval architecture, which is to put as much stores and equipment into a small space as possible. Guess what? A library's exactly the same."

The ship-shaped model of the British Libraryw
Everything looking ship-shape. Image: Londonist

Check out the model of the library on the ground floor, and it's plain to see the building is very much ship-shape (or to be more precise, luxury liner-shape). Even the clock tower is a visual reference to a nautical funnel."It's been said that the British Library is sailing on the sea of knowledge. That sounds a bit corny I know," says Mehmet.

The entrance hall and huge mural
Image: Londonist
A modernist concrete staircase under construction
One of the staircases being built in the mid 1990s. Image: British Library

With the entrance of the library, Wilson wanted to create maximum impact: the doors are relatively humble in size, but as you pass through — you are ushered into a vast foyer, flooded with light, and with stairwells that evoke sheer white cliff faces. It is, says Mehmet, supposed to give visitors a joosh of inspiration — drawing you to the light and inspiring you to learn.

A man in grey suit and monocle posing with the King's Library behind him
Kevin Mehmet, Visitor Experience Assistant, with his monocle. Image: Londonist

The building is an undisputed masterpiece. Well mostly. Our current king isn't a fan. While his mum officially opened the building in June 1998, he sniffily referred to it as 'a building suiting an academy for secret policemen.'

Mind you, the British Library wasn't supposed to be here at all. Initial plans plonked it squarely opposite the British Museum, which would've meant the destruction of a row of handsome buildings on Great Russell Street, including the site of the Museum Tavern pub. Good old John Betjeman was one of the dissenting voices that encouraged the powers that be to shift the site to the former railway goods yard in St Pancras. Give that man another statue.

If you're wondering where all the earth they excavated to build the library wound up, it went to build an artificial ski slope in Beckton. Naturally.

The artworks — dotted all over the place

A book-shaped bench attached to a ball and chain
Image: Senra (John McCullough) via creative commons

Of the library's 1.6 million annual visitors, a million also visit the galleries. The British Library is a fulcrum of culture, with a freshet of exhibitions and talks going on. The building is also something of an art gallery. Eduardo Paolozzi's Newton sculpture in the forecourt fuses together art, poetry and science, while R.B. Kitaj's 'If not' tapestry hangs in the atrium, throbbing with imagery from The Waste Land and Heart of Darkness (Its primary function, though, is practical: to absorb echo.)

Outline of the Newton statue
Eduardo Paolozzi's Newton sculpture, made at the same foundry as the Trafalgar Square lions. Image: Londonist

One of London's coolest benches — Bill Woodrow's 'Sitting On History', a book-shaped sculpture attached to a ball and chain — is said to 'refer to the book as the captor of information which we cannot escape'.

Ascend the stairs to find a portrait of the late Hilary Mantel; when unveiled in 2014, it was the British Library's first painting of a living writer ever to go on display.

The collections — every single publication from the UK and Ireland

A green book in a red tray ready to go on a conveyor belt
A book embarks on its journey to a reading room via conveyor belt. Image: Londonist

The British Library is home to a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland; this is done through the legal deposit system, whereby publishers must send one of everything they publish to the British Library. Even if you've self-published a godawful novella that sold 14 copies to family members only, it should be here in the British Library.

As you can imagine, that requires a bit of storage space. The library's collections contain over 170 million items, requiring 746km of shelving — and that's growing an extra 8km per year.

Towering stacks of books
The National Newspaper Building in Boston Spa. Image: British Library

Not of all that is in London; in fact, the St Pancras building is technically at capacity, and is now only adding to its special collections. All of the legal deposit materials go to the British Library's second site in Boston Spa, Yorkshire — with one truck per day shuttling tomes back and forth. So long as you get your order in 20 minutes before the truck leaves, your book should make it to its destination the next day.

With space at a premium, books are arranged by size, not subject. Doing it this way generates 30% more space. "You have to have a rethink of how to use a library," says Kevin Mehmet, "Here, you will find Russian literature next to medieval London next to Thomas the Thank Engine next to a Mary Berry cooking book."

Ordering books — a basement full of conveyor belts

A grey conveyor belt underneath a ceiling
The conveyor belt system that sends books up from the basements. Image: Londonist

"It doesn't do to talk about icebergs when you're talking about shipping, but it is like an iceberg — there's more down below than there is above," says Kevin Mehmet about the library. The floors beneath ground level store most materials, and go so deep that the Piccadilly line — north and southbound — bore through the walls (you can hear them rumbling down here). Books are catalogued using the ABRS system, which meticulously notes the shelfmark of each and every publication.

It is the job of people like Peter Roberts, Collection Storage Manager, to deal with 1,500 to 2,000 requests per day. Request tickets are sent down to the basement, where Roberts and the team will pluck the books from the shelves, and send them up to the requested room via a conveyor belt system. The target is for all books to reach the reader within 70 minutes of request, but it's usually done faster. The library prides itself on a a 97.3% hit rate of getting the right books to readers on time. We should really get the British Library to run our train network too.

A man pulls out a glass pane with fragments of a manuscript inside it
Peter Roberts, Collection Storage Manager. Image: Londonist

It is not just books. The collections contain Sikh holy scriptures wrapped in silks, Ming dynasty banknotes, Charles Dickens novels in serial form, the Diamond Sutra (the world's earliest-dated printed book), Beethoven and Bach manuscripts, hand-written lyrics to Beatles songs, a first edition of Don Quixote and the Balfour Declaration. (By the way, readers will need a good reason to handle items like this in the flesh — they're not going to let you start scribbling your own annotations on the original song sheet to Ticket to Ride.)

Some of Roberts' favourite things down here are little strips of wood from Central Asia, inscribed with written prayers, evocations to gods around 800 years ago, which would've been offered up in temples. "The interesting thing about these of course is that these are ordinary people, common people," says Roberts, "and it shows how they used script, how they used language."

Rare books get the VIP treatment, and are personally wheeled up on trolleys to the reading room. No conveyor belt ride for them.

Contingency — in case of flooding, freeze books

A brick floor with a bronze plaque denoting it's a fire vent
Break in case of fire. Image: Londonist

With so many tomes in its care, the British Library has to take precautions. In the piazza out the front, you'll see a number of brass panels on the floor. These mark panels situated directly above the book stacks, and in the event of a fire, they'll be smashed in, so firefighters can control the flames.

There are contingency plans for flooding too, especially seeing as Basements 3 and 4 are below the water table. For one thing, the basements sit in a concrete box within a concrete box, meaning even if there was a flood, they should avoid getting soaked. And if that fails? "If we do get our material wet, the contingency plan is to freeze them as soon as possible in freezer warehouses, and defrost them in manageable quantities," says Kevin Mehmet. This may sound far fetched, but was successfully trialled in Florence in the 1960s, so there you go.

And books that go astray? Though this does happen, it's rarer than you might think, and people like Peter Roberts are on the case: "We can be extremely persistent," he says.

Languages — far from just a British library

A marble bust of a mutton chopped chap
A bust of pioneering librarian Anthony Panizzi. Image: Londonist

Yes, this is the British Library, but a considerable chunk of its users are overseas researchers. Almost every written language has a book collection here, and over 100 language curators have the job of managing these collections. On average, each curator speaks four languages. Chris Dillon, The British Library's Collection Metadata Systems Analyst, has studied 30.

It's fitting that the pioneer of many of the rules and systems of today's British Library — including the legal deposit system — was Anthony Panizzi, himself an Italian.

The King's Library — a castle-esque library-within-a-library

A stack of books behind glass with 'the King's Library' on the front
The King's Library contains 89,000 books. Image: Londonist

Rising up through the central core of the St Pancras building is a redoubtable monolith of leather-bound tomes. It's the King's Library — thus called because it contains the book collection that once belonged to George III. In fact, this is a double library; the books visible from the outside are all George's, but inside, there is another collection, which belonged to the aristocrat Thomas Grenville. Of the 89,000 books in here, about 80% were the king's.

A man in a suit posing by bookshelves
Adrian Edwards, Head of Printed Heritage Collections. Image: Londonist
A shelf of variously coloured leatherbound books
Image: Londonist

What with its towering presence (black marble flooring gives the impression of the stack plunging into the basement), redoubtably reinforced door, and even a small drawbridge, the King's Library resembles something of a miniature castle. Readers can't usually go inside, although they can access the books from here (90-150 books are retrieved each week).

Adrian Edwards, Head of Printed Heritage Collections, punches in the passcode and lets us into this delightfully cool (especially on a sweaty June day) complex. He shows us a few of its contents, including a Shakespeare first folio, a beautifully-illustrated copy of Micrographia by Robert Hooke (one of the earliest scientific books in the English language), and a Massachusett language Bible, translated into the indigenous American by puritans looking to spread the 'good word'.

A Shakespeare first foilo opened on the title page
Image: Londonist
The Massachusett Bible
A Massachusett language Bible. Image: Londonist

How to access the thousands of books on display through the windows? The shelves pull back, with a satisfying rolling motion.

We don't know how many of these publications George — who created the library for sharing, although at the time, only for well-to-do aristocrats — read himself. Certainly some of these books wouldn't helped him travel in his mind; the furthest he ventured was probably Weymouth, but as head of the armed forces, he took a keen interest in the topography of foreign lands, and the collection includes beautifully presented maps he'd've studied.

Sound and vision — tipsy MPs on the record

A vinyl underneath a microscope
A vinyl and a microscope — sound and vision. Image: Londonist

The British Library is about more than just the written word. There's an entire Sound and Vision division here, its corridors littered with gramophone players, hi-fis, jukeboxes... and a model of the HMV dog. Digitisation takes place in 10 studios, and it's not unusual to hear bagpipes, or some long-lost dialect playing while you're down here.

"We don't think of sound as resource, we think of it as part of the world around us," says Janet Topp Fargion, Head of Sound and Vision, "but we're beginning to see a shift — sound tells us something that nothing else can tell us."

These sound archives were formed in the mid 1950s, after Patrick Saul went to the British Museum to ask to visit the sound collection, and was told there wasn't one. "I'll do it myself," he decided.

The HMV dog perched on a wooden cabinet
Image: Londonist

Unlike with the published word, there's no such thing as legal deposit. Subject curators, who know their field inside-out, keep their ear to the ground for exciting finds, and the next big thing with musical artists.

The collection is mammoth, dating back to the beginning of recorded sound, and featuring everything from wax cylinders through to magnetic reel tape, cassettes, Blu-Ray, and now, digital files. What isn't already digitised is gradually being made so — but, and this is quite wonderful — if the recording you want isn't already digitised, the team will do that especially for you.

In their 'kitchen', the team use a range of equipment — including ovens and vegetable dryers — to restore recordings before they're transferred to computer.

Two Wurlitzer jukeboxes
Image: Londonist

The collections are accessed by a spectrum of people: discographers tracking down rare bootleg recordings; actors looking to hone their Cork brogue; environmentalists wanting to hear the call of a now-extinct bird.

Put on the spot, Topp Fargion says her favourite sound in here is a six-minute recording of plastic tube orchestra on Tasso Island, off Sierra Leone. It had a tiny population with very few resources, many of whom were, Topp Fargion believes, relocated around the time this recording was made in 1991 by Dennis Furnell. This is probably the last recording of them. "It's beautiful to listen to," says Topp Fargion, "it sounds like the origins of jazz. But it also has that human story behind it."

Two people sit by a sound digitisation device
Karl Jenkins and Janet Topp Fargion at work in an audio lab. Image: Londonist

In one of the studios, audio engineer Karl Jenkins is making his way through stacks of wax Edison Phonograph cylinders. Edison's British representative was George Edward Gouraud: "He would take this machine to swanky parties with the rich and famous — dukes and earls, things like that — and basically get everyone drunk and show them what a fantastic machine it was," says Jenkins.

Jenkins plays us a recording of a surely inebriated Robert Browning trying to recite one of his poems, flubbing his lines, and leading a crowd into a round of sloppy 'hip hip hoorays!'. The archives also has the first ever recording of the Speaker of the House demanding "Order! Order!" in the House of Commons. There follows a cartoonish Etonian cheer, before someone starts singing "glory glory hallelujah!" The sherry always seemed to be flowing back then.

The 2030 extension — start of a new chapter

View of the British Library extension from the north
Image: British Library

In the space just behind the Sound Archive — where the British Library and the Francis Crick Institute face off — is where the British Library will start a new chapter. Shortly before its 50th birthday, it announced it was going ahead with a 12-storey extension, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Rather than creating more space for books and the like, the £500m extension will feature new galleries, learning and library spaces, as well as a new home for The Alan Turing Institute. Due to open 2030, it'll mark the start of a new chapter for this incredible library.

The British Library is open daily, and it's free to get a Reader Pass.