A Tour of The British Library

If you’re going to visit a library, why not start with the top of the pile? The British Library in London runs daily behind-the-scenes tours lasting 60 minutes and costing just £10 (£8 if you’re a member) – bargain!

Interior view of the British Library

The architectural style of the British Library isn’t to everyone’s tastes but that might be down to the rather torturous route to completion. We started the tour outside and learned some fascinating facts about it.

Bust of Colin St John Wilson

The building was originally designed in the 1960s by Colin St John Wilson. But delays and relocations, mean his design bears little resemblance to what was actually built (which might explain why the bust of him in the entrance looks a bit miffed).

The British Museum - Edited

The British Library was originally meant to be built near to the British Museum where the collection was first kept. However, that wasn’t possible so it wound up moving across London, ending up near St Pancras Station.

The foundation stone wasn’t laid until 1982 and the building didn’t open until 1997. The project went wildly over-budget until the government got fed up and cut off funding, effectively stopping the building work. Fortunately it inhabitable by this point, but any unfinished bits in the public areas have been left, well, unfinished.

Unfinished area

Below the library is a basement that goes down eight storeys housing most, but not all of the millions of books. Parts of “Alien” were shot there whilst it was being built. We didn’t get to go down there but I wasn’t too disappointed in case any alien’s got left behind after they finished!

Model of British Museum

Unfortunately, even after all that time and money, the library quickly ran out of space to store all the printed material it has to hold. By law, a copy of every single book, magazine, and newspaper published in the UK has to be sent to the library – even pornographic ones! To be able to store the new publications it receives, the library built a new storage facility in Boston Spa, which opened in 2009.

Our guide also showed us how requested books are picked and whizzed around the building in a giant series of conveyor belts. And we got an eagle-eye view of one of the reading rooms.

We learned about The King’s Library, donated by King George IV after he inherited it from his father. It’s kept in this rather snazzy area in the middle of the main atrium and can only be accessed by about 30 people.

The Kings Library - Edited

I’d recommend a visit to any writer or reader or book obsessive – or just if you fancy something a bit different. Plus you can visit the continuous free exhibitions like the ‘Treasures of the British Library’ as well.

In Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” novels is a place called L-space. When vast amounts of words and ideas are held in one place, they can warp the very fabric of time and space. I can imagine the weight of words in the British Library being enough to collapse reality and open passages to different dimensions. I’ve never been in the stacks as they’re reserved for members – but I’d make sure to take a torch and guide if you do.

I also must mention the literary heaven of the gift shop full of postcards, bags, badges, notebooks, pens and anything else you could dream of (as well as actual books both fiction and non-fiction!)

I, of course, had to buy a notebook to commemorate my visit. You can probably guess why a self-confessed ‘Wonderland’ obsessive like me found it irresistible! But the book contains quotes and sketches from a selection of novels making it a perfect souvenir of a library visit.

Related reads

5 Inspiring Things to do in London

A Visit to the Charles Dickens Museum, London

Exploring Highgate Cemetery


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