Seminar Retrospective - Thursday, 18 May - A Visit to the British Library

Thursday was our excursion to London to take a tour of the British Library, and it was interesting to see the contrasts between it and the Bodleian. While both the Bodleian and the British Library are legal deposit libraries and both have major research collections (and to some extent, a similar focus in offering their research collections), the two libraries are a study in contrasts.

Although it is obviously making a great effort to modernize, the Bodleian still has very much the feel of an old fashioned library. The British Library feels much more contemporary. Part of the reason for this, of course is that the British Library is more contemporary - it's current main public branch opened in 1998, and it is very much a product of its time: Modern brick exterior and a light, open interior (complete with furniture that looks like it came from Ikea). The newest of the Bodleian's buildings date to the 1940's, and the buildings themselves feel very much like old buildings. Not that the feel of being in an old building is a bad thing, mind, it's just different.

It was also obvious after the tour of the British Library that a great deal of thought and care went into designing the new building, and again it feels very much like a library that has been designed from the ground up with current users in mind (power for laptops, WiFi, lots of meeting space in the public areas, lots of computer terminals in the reading rooms, cafe & restaurant). And again, looking back at the Bodleian, it's obvious that the buildings were designed with very different uses in mind. (Although I think they've done a good job of retrofitting: power for laptops is available, and I think University students can get network access, either via WiFi or Ethernet.)

All this has left me thinking that perhaps the biggest design challenge for library buildings isn't in designing the perfect "new" building, but in renovating older historic buildings. That's a challenge the Bodleian's going through right now as it struggles to modernize some of its facilities while keeping the historic feel of the library intact. It will be interesting to see how well they answer the challenge.

There's one other obvious difference in focus between the two libraries: public outreach. As I've already mentioned, the British Library is making a big push towards making its collections more available to the public, while increasing public access is less of a focus for the Bodleian (at least, at the moment). This makes sense, as a National Library, the BL is (at least to some extent) a public institution, while the Bodleian is a university institution, rather than a public one. This also shows in the fact that the British Library keeps a large number of its more famous holdings on public display (if you'd like a virtual tour, head to this site: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/homepage.html), while the Bodleian keeps it's collection off limits to the public (as far as I could tell).

In all, perhaps the most striking thing about the two libraries is that even though they're both very different in character, they both "work" - they're both great libraries. I must confess that of the two, I'm fonder of the British Library - I like the fact that there are things to do there besides sit and study/research: You can wander through the gallery and drool over all the rarities, you can have a snack or a meal, you can meet friends or business contacts - it's a public space in the best sense, accessible and multi-use (and I'll admit it, the modern design suits my personal tastes better). That said, for a researcher, both libraries are gems: they are both possessed of amazing collections, helpful staff, and up-to-date facilities. I hope that both libraries keep their unique characters for a long time to come.

After the British Library tour, the rest of our day in London was free time. One of my fellow seminar attendees who had been to London before was kind enough to give me and another attendee (who like me, had not been to London before) a brief orientation tour (and Philip, if you're reading this, thanks muchly) before we went our separate ways and made our leisurely way back to Oxford. The only thing that marred the day was the fact that it was windy in London that day and the air was filled with some sort of nasty, fuzzy, tree buds (or some such) that stung the eyes and irritated the sinus cavities, which made being outside a bit unpleasant.