Our visit started with a friendly welcome from BL staff members, Adrian Shindler (Humanities Reference Specialist) and Kelvin Eli (Collection Storage Manager). Upon receiving our visitor passes in the Front Hall, we were taken down to one of the underground basements to observe how the Library goes about storing its printed materials. The space is vast and contains rows and rows of open shelving used to store items in high demand, while rolling-stacks are used to store items in slightly less demand. The basements are all temperature and humidity controlled environments, so materials stand a much better chance of being preserved for the benefit of future generations. The basements also run in close proximity to the Victoria line (London Underground), and the rumble of the tube trains can be heard on a frequent basis!
Inside the Operations Room, staff constantly receive new requests for materials, which they must pick and scan before sending up to the Reading Rooms. To this end, staff rely on a network of conveyor belts to transport materials from one part of the building to another. Kelvin drew our attention to the fact the Library takes anything between 1100 and 1300 requests per day. Overall, it struck me very much as a system comparable to a modern warehouse setting, compounded by the efficiency with which the whole operation was carried out – registered BL readers will know the Library sets a 70 minute deadline for the majority of requests to be processed.
During the tour we walked past multiple trolleys filled with early printed books. These, we were told, were being sent across to Germany to be digitized as part of the BL’s joint project with Google Books. According to Kelvin, approximately ten thousand out-of-copyright books are sent to Google every month. We also spent time in the Library’s sound collections, which featured all sorts of recordings available through an impressive array of different formats: 19th century wax cylinders, acetate discs, oversized LPs, cassettes, CDs, MiniDiscs, and so forth. Similarly, we spotted film reels, Betamax, VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray formats for audio-visual recordings related to drama, poetry, and literature in performance, as well as the moving image in general.
After the tour concluded, we were introduced to Hedley Sutton (Asia & Africa Reference Team Leader), who presented half a dozen or so highlights chosen from the Asia & Africa Collections. Firstly, we looked at an incunable with contemporary world map illustrations produced just before the discovery of the Americas. Elsewhere, we glanced through a 19th century Indian textiles catalogue; an 18th century East India Company ship’s log; an early printed book devoted to the legendary Christian King, Prester John; and a 20th century colonial officer’s ‘recreational guide’, entitled The Hoghunters Annual. The presentation was extremely interesting and demonstrated the research potential to be gained not just in rare books, but all kinds of ephemera too.
The final part of the afternoon was spent inside the Asia & Africa Reading Room, which fits around ninety people in total, and is considered one of the more pleasant spaces to work, mainly due to the selection of portraiture paintings on display. Many thanks to Adrian, Kelvin, and Hedley for taking the time to show us around the Library and for their erudite responses to our questioning.