Last Wednesday I was lucky enough to join a tour of the libraries of the British Museum. I’m still recovering from the impact of visiting seven libraries and an archive in one day – something of a record even for a library freak. Our itinerary allowed us about 45 minutes per library, so this is the merest sketch, with apologies to the librarians if I have got things wrong.
The absence of one library looms over the building – the British Library, departed to St. Pancras, and its premises turned into an exhibition gallery and shop and coffee shops and circulation space. It looks wonderful and gives a spacious feel to the museum at this level – but how sad to know that the extraordinary Round Reading Room has gone forever more.
The libraries we visited are the ones which belong to and support the work of the major departments of the British Museum. Each developed at the whim or need of individual curators over the last two centuries, so they just grew like Topsy. They are managed independently by their own departments, but have a few features in common: they are world-class collections in their own right; they are totally understaffed; and they all play second fiddle to THE COLLECTION (when Museum staff use this phrase you can hear the capitals).
The librarians are attempting to make their catalogues available online, so you can browse some of them to see the range and depth of the books and journals they hold. There are few electronic resources which would cover their fields, so books and print journals are still dominant here.
Otherwise, how different can you get… One department has an orderly purpose-built library room above stairs, belied by the labyrinthine stacks in the bowels below.
Another is in a gracious hall of marble columns and mahogany, but squeezed into an impossibly small area behind THE COLLECTION.
A third is distributed through corridors and curators’ offices:
and a fourth is housed on three separate sites including one buried among the grimy back blocks of the museum site. (I was totally lost among the corridors, doors, stairs, pathways, ramps…)
Yet another occupies a beautiful galleried hall, ruined by particularly vile strip lighting, and deprived of natural light for several years in order to exclude the dust and noise of the building site outside, and in which hoovering is a problem for lack of power points (couldn’t get a photo, light too dim for my phone).
Idiosyncracies flourish. I didn’t ask about the giant banana as I felt it would spoil it for me if I did.
The library collections are fantastic. We had permission to take photos, but I’m not sure if this included the actual books, so the only example I will show is this early catalogue of part of THE COLLECTION. A reader could be lost for years if they were let loose here (that means me). How about Bronze Ornaments of the Palace Gates of Balawat? Or Engravings of Persepolis Cylinder Seals & Inscriptions? Or what about Andean Art at Dumbarton Oaks?
I spent the day boggling. And I am boggled yet.