When I went to London, one of the places I most wanted to visit was the British Library. It was less than a mile from our hotel, so on the second day it was the first place we visited.
I actually was fairly giddy to step onto the grounds. As a librarian, I always love passing by other cities’ libraries, but to have the time to explore this one was a really good moment for me.
The library has an exhibition space, with exhibits that change often. I had no idea what might be there, so I was surprised & excited to discover it was a display about the history of punk rock. (Me: former goth girl, lover of books, and current librarian, in the British Library, wandering through a punk rock display: I might have clicked my heels together. “Excited” is hardly the word.) There was a wall of 45s and display cases full of fanzines, catalogs, concert flyers and tickets. Handwritten notes from the Sex Pistols and other punk rock icons…album sleeves…photographs.
That might just have been the highlight of my days in London.
Except after the security guard got miffed at Haley for taking pictures of the album display, we wandered into the library’s Treasures gallery, where they have their rare books on display. And yes—that punk rock exhibition struck a chord. But those old books…they were so moving to me. It is the old thing I have tried to write about many times, how an old object can be a sort of time-travelling device. The world’s oldest known book, which was found preserved in a grave…A Gutenberg Bible…the Magna Carta…a handwritten version of Beowulf. These are the famous pieces, and it was incredible to see these ancient pieces of world-changing documents. DaVinci’s notebooks, some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a letter by King Henry VIII. (There is something so intimately real about another person’s handwriting, especially someone historically famous; it makes you realize that they didn’t just live in history books but in this very world.) There are also newer cool things to see, like Jane Austen’s writing desk, handwritten lyrics by the Beatles, and Orwell’s revisions.
But the best, for me, was the display of prayer books. They were my favorite because they felt personal, and because they seemed like they would be owned by women. (Both Lady Anne Grey’s and Anne Boleyn’s were in the case.) They are beautiful in their own right, but when I thought of them being used, of the thumbing-through and the reading and the comfort they might have brought, well. I embarrassed Haley again by crying right there on the display case. For me, the prayer books are achingly sad, little bits of flotsam left in time, a place where the owner’s sorrows and hopes gathered between pages.
(There is no photography allowed in the British Library Treasures Collection, but I loved this one huge wall of old books that was also at the library.)
I confess: I had desperately hoped that the gift shop would have a tiny replica of one of the prayer books, made into a piece of jewelry. I probably wouldn’t have cared how expensive it was. Alas, they did not, but the gift shop did not disappoint me. I bought a T-shirt (with a quote from one of the punk rock fanzines, an illustration drawn by one of the Sex Pistols), a book (The Beautiful Librarians by Sean O’Brien) (go on—click through and read that poem and then tell me it isn’t gorgeous and amazing and heartbreaking), and a few postcards. Also stamps, and then Haley and I stood at one of the tables and wrote our postcards, stuck our stamps on, and found the post box (it’s on the wall in the basement near the cloak check).
We really only had a couple of hours to spend here; I would have liked two more to explore everything, but as our time was limited we hurried. But I think it is the first place I will go to when I get back to London.
The British Library is definitely a mecca for book and history nerds.