In 1996, one of the world's great libraries began moving its collection of some 12 million books, manuscripts, and other items from the British Museum to its very own home in St. Pancras. In the new building, you get modernistic beauty rather than the fading glamour and the ghosts of Karl Marx, William Thackeray, and Virginia Woolf of the old library at the British Museum. You are also likely to get the book you want within an hour instead of 3 days. Academics, students, writers, and bookworms from all over the world come here. On a recent visit, we sat next to a student researching the history of pubs.
The bright, roomy interior is far more inviting than the rather dull red-brick exterior suggests. The most spectacular room is the Humanities Reading Room, constructed on three levels with daylight filtered through the ceiling.
The fascinating collection includes such items of historic and literary interest as two of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta (1215), a Gutenberg Bible, Nelson's last letter to Lady Hamilton, and the journals of Captain Cook. Almost every major author -- Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Keats, and hundreds of others -- is represented in the section devoted to English literature. Beneath Roubiliac's 1758 statue of Shakespeare stands a case of documents relating to the Bard, including a mortgage bearing his signature and a copy of the First Folio of 1623. There's also an unrivaled collection of stamps and stamp-related items.
Using headphones set around the room, you can hear thrilling audio snippets such as James Joyce reading a passage from Finnegan's Wake. Particularly intriguing is an exhibition called "Turning the Pages," where you can, for example, electronically read a complete Leonardo da Vinci notebook by putting your hands on a special computer screen that flips from one page to another. There is a copy of The Canterbury Tales from 1410, and even manuscripts from Beowulf (ca. 1000). In the Historical Documents section are letters by everybody from Henry VIII to Napoleon, from Elizabeth I to Churchill. In the music displays, you can seek out original sheet music by Beethoven, Handel, Stravinsky, and Lennon and McCartney. An entire day spent here will only scratch the surface.
Though self-guided admission to the library is free, walking tours library cost £8 ($16) for adults and £6.50 ($13) for seniors, students, and children. They are conducted Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 3pm, and Saturday at 10:30am and 3pm. Library tours that include a visit to one of the reading rooms take place on Sundays and bank holidays at 11:30am and 3pm; £8 ($16) adults, £6.50 ($13) for seniors and students. Reservations can be made up to 2 weeks in advance.
- © Frommer's 2013
- Highly Recommended 2010