I’m doing something I probably shouldn’t be doing: writing a blog entry under the watchful eye of George Bernard Shaw (well, his bust really). This is the Manuscripts Reading Room in one of my favourite buildings in London, the British Library, next to King’s Cross and St Pancras stations. I have been coming here every now and then for years, since soon after the building opened in the late 1990s.
So it’s a library. It’s the largest one in the world; no wonder the BL’s motto is ‘Explore the world’s knowledge’. For someone who needs to read texts written centuries ago, there is no single place that would have more to offer. To me, the BL also feels like a little piece of Nordic calm in the middle of a hectic city, and indeed, Colin St John Wilson, the architect who designed it, was inspired by Alvar Aalto. However, the BL is not like an Aalto building: it is more ornate and somehow warmer. Not everyone likes the look of the building; scathing remarks have been made by, for instance, the Prince of Wales.
The spaces that I spend time in include the Manuscripts and the two Humanities Reading Rooms, the last two often crowded yet quiet enough, the Manuscripts room a haven of peace – a great place for working. Academic study aside, you can practically live on the premises. When you feel peckish or have a sudden craving for coffee or cake – and cakes are very important if you are in English studies – you can choose where to have your Chelsea buns and soya lattes: there is a restaurant and three cafés, two of them outdoors. If you have a reader’s ticket and prefer a cheaper snack, you can pop in the Readers’ room (with a roof terrace but not much of a view) and make use of the vending machines.
The cafés are open to all visitors, not just registered readers, as are the exhibitions rooms and the shop. There is plenty to see in the gallery for an English student, from the Beowulf manuscript to drafts of some of the greatest pop songs of the 20th century. To have a look at some of the BL’s collections, you don’t even have to leave your home: simply click at www.bl.uk.
Back to research then. Resting on the cushion in front of me is a book from the early 13th century, hand-written of course, and the only existing copy of the text in the world. This is indeed a house of treasures.
Text and images by Janne Skaffari