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The New British Library: Travail and Hope

January 1999

     We've all grown up with a somewhat awed awareness of the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London, and many of us have entered it through its vast stately colonnade. Inside, the great blue dome of its Library's Round Reading Room, where for generations innumerable writers studied, has long been part of the sacred imagery of scholarship. Visitors to the Museum were permitted to peer briefly into the Library at certain hours, but most never obtained the readers' passes that were passports to its infinite scholarly treasures. Few beyond regular readers realized that, in 1972, the Library was administratively separated from the Museum proper and re-named the British Library. Under this title it combined several library locations and services, and acquired an independent budget and staff.

     By the mid-1970s it had become obvious that the reading room, opened in 1857, and its adjacent book storage facilities, were reaching their limits and were unsuited to the approaching electronic revolution in libraries. The British Library's efforts to acquire land for a new building near the existing Museum on Great Russell Street were vigorously opposed by residents, shopkeepers, landlords, and city authorities, who foresaw the disruption of the Bloomsbury neighborhood and the imposition of a huge alien structure in their midst. The Library was compelled to look elsewhere and leave its old space to some future use by the Museum.

     A new location was eventually found about half a mile to the north, in Somers Town, just outside the traditional boundary of Bloomsbury. It was on Euston Road, a very busy thoroughfare, next to the grand Victorian St. Pancras Railway Station and its unused hotel. A depressed neighborhood of substandard properties, its character is suggested by the fact that BBC television chose a derelict garage on Midland Street, across from the library building site, as the locale of a macabre murder for an episode of Prime Suspect, the police drama starring Helen Mirren, recently aired on Public Television.

The Courtyard Entrance     But what about the new building? An intense design competition resulted in the choice of Colin St. John Wilson as architect, and the eyes of the library world were fixed on his drafting table. But the design was not revealed until completed--and then it was too late. I remember seeing the drawings of the exterior front and being dismayed. Soon Prince Charles, a strongly opinionated student of architecture, spoke up boldly: it reminded him of an academy for the training of secret police. Others said it resembled a prison or a factory, with its stark angular lines and unrelieved brick surfaces. The uproar in British opinion never deterred Wilson, and the library went up as he envisioned it.

Courtyard & Entrance     But it took over fifteen years to build and entailed continuous controversy, embarrassments, blunders, frustrations, and cost overruns on a monumental scale all scrutinized by the building's detractors. But the public on the pavement saw almost nothing, since the building site was hidden by wooden fences. I passed it year after year, and occasionally was able to get a glimpse inside of nothing happening at all. Delays in making decisions, obtaining materials and persuading Parliament to increase funding were the obvious explanations: target dates for completion were pushed ahead year after year and the cost eventually doubled from the original 400 million pounds. (My wife Martha and I took a hard-hat tour in 1991 and were impressed by the lofty interior spaces.) Other problems bedeviled the project: stack space already seemed cramped even before opening, shelving deteriorated outdoors while awaiting installation, book transport machinery was troublesome, wiring defective, computers obsolescent. Yet all these matters were eventually resolved, and the officially-titled British Library at St. Pancras was opened with great fanfare by Queen Elizabeth II on June 25, 1998.

     We arrived in August, filled with curiosity. It was discouraging to cross a large entry courtyard virtually devoid of trees, benches and landscaping: a bare stone surface with gratuitous steps going up only to go down again, an impediment to the disabled and a peril to those whose eyes were lifted to architecture. At the spacious entry, where our 35-year old reader's passes were still honored, there was a grand staircase closed for security reasons and an obligatory stair down to a windowless cloakroom where all significant carried items had to be checked. Then it was up again: elevators to reach escalators to reach the reading room, or was it escalators to reach elevators? Both seemed to be needed, and there were no signs to help navigate an inconveniently complicated layout.

King's Library & Cafe     We found two humanities reading rooms, neither grand but both attractive and well-lighted (the science and technology areas had not yet opened) but no obvious way to tell which room we wanted. The furniture was fine, the computer terminals plentiful, and the staff helpful. A one-hour class was offered, and accepted, in how to use the computers for identifying and ordering books. My wife later did this, but not without trouble, while I inspected the superb new Map Room and talked to its director. Dining facilities were first class for all readers, the exhibition galleries admirable, and the six-storey glass-walled King's Library of George III magnificent. After more perambulating and questioning, admiring and complaining, we left with mixed impressions. Some of the problems we experienced will probably disappear after another year's operation; some are locked into the architecture and everyone will have to adjust. We should not dwell on the pangs of the building's prolonged gestation or on its external awkwardness, but on its interior elegance and increasingly effective performance. Most important, nothing should distract us from the treasures it holds and the education it offers. In all its flawed grandeur, the new British Library at St. Pancras is a signal achievement.

Albert R. Vogeler