Sunday, 14 October 2018

A Ship of Knowledge

A domani, mañana, we will be looking at 1988, but for today lets talk about the BL.

I was a reader at the British Library for a year last year while I was doing my half-an-MA and made very little use of it for a number of reasons - some sensible (Kensington Central Library could be practically fallen into after work, getting to Bloomsbury was a slight palaver at the weekend) and some really quite ridiculous (not being sure of the rules around what I could take into reading rooms, how to use the lockers, and so on).

Currently I'm a 'friend' of the BL, which means I should be able to get a 3 year ticket next year.
Hopefully I'll make much better use of it in my second half-of-an-MA, and then perhaps some research on the archaeology of Pompeii, a subject I find utterly fascinating.

My BA dissertation was on Pompeii, but I was more enthralled by the politics and archaeology and rivalry around the process of digging it up than the place itself.

Don't get me wrong, Pompeii and Herculaneum are also fascinating, but they've been pored over already. I was sparked off by some of the very critical commentary about earlier archaeologists, and there's a great story to be told about the evolution of archaeology, the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, taking in Napoleon and Emma Hamilton and Spanish monarchs and Mussolini, that I'd like to let simmer and pull into something coherent one day.  

But that's an aside. Being a friend of the BL I get free entry to exhibitions, and four free tickets to events a year.

So today I went on the tour. And it was great.

Besides being taken behind the scenes I learnt, in rapid succession:  that the current site was chosen because it meant that books could be walked from their old accommodation at the British Museum, since they're basically so valuable it was too risky to ship them any distance. That Prince Charles had hated the building plans, and in particular criticised the new library for being shaped like a ship, since the architect was not asked for a monument (in this he had my sympathy, the current building being more functional and less show offy, although apparently Charles still hates it, which I don't agree with).

That the Queen loved it and donated a largish wodge of cash towards it.

That the lost river of the Fleet runs through the site, and since they could not build up (as this would obscure important views) they built down and have the second lowest basement after the Bank of England, and a pump to get the water out to the canal.

That the site is lower than the tube in parts (and we heard the tube again and again while going round the archives).

That the book rests are made from rejects from a medical pillow maker.

That the chairs are made from american oak and £400 a pop (and very comfortable).

That the man who invented the enigma machine was shot so he couldn't sell his secret on.

We also took in: Alan Turing and the apple and Steve Jobs naming his company after him, Jane Austen and the possibility she was deliberately poisoned (people in the US are genuinely CSI-ing her desk to find this out. As a popular female author, she had enemies. Other explanations for her early death are Parkinson’s, or accidental poisoning with arsenic.) King James, that Magna Carta exhibition, early printing, stamps, the bible in Ancient Greek, how long it takes to catalogue a book, the shortage of people who can do this in ancient Hebrew or Aramaic, the East India company, wills, opium sales, a celestial globe provided to Isaac Newton which had been pulled up for the Harry Potter exhibition and not yet returned to storage, card catalogues, the Gutenberg bible, Henry VIII..

And these are just the bits I can remember from a tour of not more than an hour and a half.

Highly recommended.

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