Whether you're a bookworm, history buff, music fan or artist, you may want to add the British Library to your itinerary the next time you're in London. The national library of the United Kingdom is also the largest library in the world, defined by the number of items cataloged. Within its walls are more than 170 million books, manuscripts, journals, newspapers, sound and music recordings, magazines, drawings, stamps and maps.
All those treasures require a lot of space, which is why the library has more than 1,205,557 square feet of space covering 14 floors — five of them underground. About 388 miles of shelves hold the collections, and the library adds six more miles of shelving every year to support the 3 million new items they add each year. It was the largest public building constructed in the 20th century in the U.K.
From this reading area within the British Library you can see the enclosed King's Library at its center. (Photo: Andrew Dunn/Wikimedia Commons)
A newcomer as far as libraries go, the British Library was established in 1973 after the British Library Act was passed and the library separated from the British Museum to become its own entity. So how did it get so big so fast? After all, it's the only library in the world larger than the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. One reason is that the British Library is a "legal deposit library," which means they automatically receive a free copy of every item published and distributed in Britain and Ireland. It's so big that it even includes a library within itself — the King's Library, which contains 65,000 printed volumes along with other pamphlets, manuscripts and maps collected by King George III between 1763 and 1820.
The British Library attracts more than 1.75 million visitors a year, and more than 16,000 people use the collections every day (including online). There are so many items available for public viewing that the library says if you were to see five items every day, it would take you 80,000 years to see the whole collection. But if you want to use a reading room, you'll need a Reader Pass, and those require proof of address. The library can accommodate more than 1,200 readers at a time.
Some of the more interesting items on display, according to the library, include:
- Manuscripts for prominent written works such as "Beowulf," "Canterbury Tales," "Jane Eyre" and "Nicholas Nickleby"
- Leonardo da Vinci's notebook
- The recording of Nelson Mandela's Rivonia trial speech
- "Diamond Sutra," the world’s earliest dated printed book
- Handwritten Beatles lyrics
- An entire room devoted to the Magna Carta
The often-photographed gate at the British Library entrance was designed by Lida and David Kindersley. (Photo: C. G. P. Grey/Wikimedia Commons)
There are so many gems to unearth that the library even has its own TV show, where "a host of famous faces, including Jamie Cullum, Meera Syal and professor Robert Winston, pick out what they believe are the most important items in the British Library," according to Sky News, which airs "Treasures of the British Library."