By Zubeida Mustafa
London has a new landmark. The British Library. Opened to the public five years ago, it has emerged as a major crowd-puller in the British metropolis. That is not at all surprising for it combines on its premises the beauty of its architecture, the aesthetic delicacy of its decor and the wealth of its collected treasures to attract even the most ‘unliterary’ of people. You don’t have to be a bibliophile or a scholar looking for reference material to visit the library, though 431,000 of its visitors last year were readers who had come to consult its books. But nearly as many came just to have a look around and marvel at what they saw.
Centrally located at St Pancras, the British Library is the country’s national library and brings within its folds the collections from a number of institutions, the best known being the library of the British Museum. With 11 reading rooms and four deep basements, the library houses 12 million volumes.
It is not so much the size of the collection or its spatial massiveness that is overawing. It is the variety, the versatility and the ingeniousness of what is stocked in the 14-storey building that leaves one dumbfounded. Of course you remind yourself that many of the literary treasures which came from distant lands, followed in the wake of British imperialist conquests. But they are so well-preserved, so amply exhibited with detailed annotations and technically appropriate lighting, adequately protected from vandalism and easily accessible to visitors who wish to view them, that one expects them to survive another few centuries in these foreign climes.
As you enter the piazza of the library you are greeted by a bigger than life statue of Sir Isaac Newton. Sculptured by Sir Eduardo Paulozzi, Newton is shown bending over his mathematical instruments doing some calculations. That is not the only work of art. The building has many paintings and other art displays. What is most striking is the gigantic seven-metre square tapestry entitled “If not, not” which hangs in the entrance hall above the staircase. Based on a painting of the same name by R.B. Kitaj, the tapestry depicts the horrors of war and the beauty of nature through its rich colours.
Exhibited in its elegant John Ritblat Gallery are sacred texts of all faiths. To actually see the ancient scriptures and gospels which were written centuries ago, the Gutenberg Bible, the Gandharan Buddhist scrolls and rare copies of the Holy Quran and specimens of calligraphic art is a spiritually fulfilling experience. There I saw a copy of the Quran from Morocco which dated back to 964 AH (1557 AD, the sign read) and another one was a Mamluk edition in the Kufic script. But most awesome was the seven-volume edition of the Quran, which had belonged to Sultan Baybars.
History comes alive with documents such as the Magna Carta signed in 1215 by an unwilling King John at Runnymede. To my surprise I learnt that quite contrary to the impression I had formed, this contained no sweeping statement of principles enshrining freedom and liberty. It granted a series of specific concessions — some pretty mundane — which the king’s barons had demanded for their own benefits. There you can also see the Letters Patent of the East India Company which launched the British on their colonial adventure in India and Nelson’s memorandum explaining his war plans for the Battle of Trafalgar. The Indian subcontinent is amply represented with treasures such as Akbar’s Nizami, the Babarnama and Timur’s Zafarnama on display in the gallery.
Interested in science? Then go and see Galileo’s books showing the constellations and Harvey’s collection with drawings of the circulatory system. There is a lot more and one could spend a lifetime soaking in the intellectual achievements of our ancestors.
Then there are those gems of English literature that one had read about when in school. To see the manuscripts in the writer’s own handwriting is quite exciting. Be it Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in her own writing or Jane Austen’s The History of England or Lewis Carroll’s description of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground in her neat script or Virginia Woolf’s The Hours, which was later renamed Mrs Dalloway, one can visualize these geniuses bending over the sheaves of paper producing their masterpieces of creativity.
The British Library also has a lot to boast in terms of music. The notes and compositions of the great masters have been laid out in the music manuscript section. They range from Handel and Mozart to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, And of course the Royal Philharmonic Society’s archives have been acquired, courtesy the generosity of some philanthropist.
There have been kind donors — in fact many of them. Perhaps the most regal was King George IV who donated his father’s entire collection of books — 60,000 — to the nation. Now they are stocked in a special section in the glass tower rising from the floor to the ceiling. It takes up 2438 linear metres of shelving.
In case you overlook it, don’t forget to go to the basement. A few hours with the exhibits there will leave you fully instructed in the history of printing, papermaking, newspaper publishing, book production and what not. You may be six or sixty; the exhibition is equally absorbing for both age groups.
What is most fascinating about this library is the fact that its books are actually used. It is basically a library and not a museum. The library invites the visitors to unlock the knowledge stored in its massive collection.