Walk around the British Library for any length of time, and you will sense how this institution is incommensurate with this arbitary definition. It offers so much more. When I first learned that my good friend Cristian had secured a role within a research project, the depth of functions that make up this venerable British icon became clear. With much gusto, acute observation, and lively acquaintance, he shares his thoughts of a well-informed mind.
Could you describe your job?
For more than a year, I have been working as a researcher on medieval manuscripts at the British Library. I have been involved in a fantastic digitization project about English and French manuscripts produced from the 8th to the 12th century. My role has been to describe the manuscripts so that users visiting the library website get a good idea about what the manuscripts are like without having to see the physical items. Many of these manuscripts have never been looked at in detail, so I was able to make some discoveries as well. Sometimes, I was able to reveal previously unknown texts. At other times, it was about the manuscripts’ previous owners. There was always something to be found, and that has made the job particularly exciting.
What drew you to The British Library, to begin with?
I have a background in medieval history. Towards the end of my doctorate, I joined the Financial Ombudsman Service as an adjudicator. This was meant to be a short-term job to mark the transition from studying to an academic job. Two years later, I was still there. Then the opportunity at the British Library presented itself. I asked myself, would I be interested to work on some of the most exciting manuscripts in the world at the second largest library in the world? There was no need to hesitate. I was already familiar with the British Library as a long-term reader, but doing research there, that was a prospect that completely won me over.
What’s the biggest misconception about The British Library?
I suppose the thing to say here is that the British Library suffers from the same kind of prejudice affecting all libraries out there: that it is a library, and so a quiet, strict, conservative, austere and boring place where one goes to read a book where there’s no other way. Although this may be true to some extent of many a library around the world, it can’t be farther from the truth when it comes to the British Library. Admittedly, the reading rooms are quiet areas, and the manuscript room is, by its very nature, rather strict, but most of the library is a free-to-use, open-space public area, with restaurants, cafés, a members’ club, two free permanent exhibitions, and casual powered desks to be enjoyed by all. You might say the British Library is a library mall. There is always something for everyone.
Could you tell our readers what they can expect when visiting The British Library for the first time?
Expect to be surprised, especially if you’re thinking of visiting a library. One’s first contact with the building is likely to be one of amazement. Opened in 1998, the Library resembles a ship. I like to think of it as an ark of knowledge. Inside the main building, the visitor may simply get a coffee and sit down at a desk in the public area using their own tablet or laptop. There is no need to sign in, sign up or get a card for this sort of thing. One may also visit the permanent and free ‘Treasures’ exhibition, which features some of the most amazing manuscripts, printed books and other textual artefacts from around the world. There is also a temporary exhibition. The one at the moment is ‘Anglo Saxon Kingdoms’ open until 19 February 2019 and featuring absolutely stupendous manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England. In order to use the reading rooms and order books and other items from the library collections, visitors need a reader’s pass, which may be obtained on the day free of charge.
What are the most challenging parts of putting a curated exhibition in place?
Since I joined the British Library, I have learned a lot about what it takes to curate an exhibition, if only from watching some of my colleagues put together amazing exhibitions, such as ‘Harry Potter’, ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ or ‘James Cook’. I’d say the most challenging part of it is dealing with loans and with other institutions. This takes time, effort and it is not always sure to be successful. Another is selecting the items to be included in the exhibition. This may seem straightforward, but it is in fact extremely difficult to find the best items.
What do you think the future of national libraries looks like?
It must be said that national libraries live through challenging times. Amidst constricting budgets, rampant digital media shaping user expectations and the increasing demand for relevance, libraries need to constantly reinvent themselves. Whether it’s by digitizing more and more material, or setting up attractive exhibitions, opening a gift shop, café, restaurant, or whether by simply making the library a user-friendly environment, national libraries can meet the challenges of the digital age while staying true to their mission: to protect, preserve and promote their textual heritage. As for the future of national libraries, I am quite optimistic. More and more European libraries are being led and run by creative people, who understand the potential their collections have in attracting new visitors and transforming a – hopefully – dying conception of what a library is. So here’s an idea. Why not come to the British Library to see that future being created. You may sip a cognac in the Members’ club before checking out an early printed book. Do some work on your laptop before heading to the restaurant for a wide choice of dishes and delicious barista coffee. To help with digestion, you may take a tour of the Treasures gallery among some of the oldest manuscripts. Just an idea.