Despite attempts made by the weather we weren’t deterred from visiting the British Library this week. Our staff here have been looking forward to becoming more familiar with the UK’s national library for a number of months and having the opportunity to discover some of its hidden gems first-hand. It was fascinating to learn more about how this institution operates. The British Library is not just of huge cultural importance but also assists with important day-to-day services here at the Albert Sloman and elsewhere. Most of the inter library loan requests taken from staff and students through us here are retrieved from the British Library as their extensive collection is a truly impressive resource. With the rights to a copy of every UK and Irish publication their collection includes over 150 million items and is continuously growing – by 12km a year. It’s a good first point of call for those books and journals that aren’t normally included in an academic library’s collections and they operate the world’s largest document delivery service.
Upon arrival at gate 5 we were met by Asian and African Studies Team Leader Hedley Sutton. He proceeded to talk us through various points of interest around the building which was a definite highlight. The British Library is home to intriguing works of art as well as books. The Paradoxymoron by Patrick Hughes is well worth seeing: a painting that doubles as a 3D optical illusion and moves with the eye. I particularly enjoyed Penelope by Joe Tilson. Inspired by the character from Joyce’s Ulysses this work of art consists of the word ‘Yes’ repeated multiple times in a series of blocks.
As part of our visit we were privileged to be shown some rare books and paraphernalia included as part of the Asian and African Studies collection. Sutton also elaborated upon some of the issues regarding accessibility to items. Whilst in the past the library was regarded as a last resource for those attempting to locate an item that they could demonstrably prove was not available elsewhere, these days they are more flexible and a reader’s pass will grant access to most items unless they require a letter of introduction from an academic supervisor. Such accessibility creates hazards. In the 1980s an activist dedicated to the repatriation of valuable Ethiopian manuscripts attempted to smuggle part of the archive out of the library. Such incidents raise questions about the political and ethical role of libraries and archives in preserving and protecting historical documents. The British Library’s records of military service and their collection of other papers containing sensitive information raise similar dilemmas with regards to availability and transparency. Preserving cultural heritage and managing accessibility to precious artefacts requires careful assessment of both practical and ethical considerations.