After visiting the British Library in February, I’ve wanted to write up some of my thoughts regarding it. I should note that I did not conduct research while I was there, so I cannot comment regarding that aspect of the institution.
The Library itself was in a much more modern building than I thought it would be and it took some time for this fact to grow on me. Architecturally, I like the fact that there is a piazza between the main gate and the entrance itself, where one can stroll or linger at the cafe. There was a presentation back at the Ontario Library Association conference in January that looked how libraries work as space and their context. By the criteria of that presentation, the BL is doing well.
Inside, a number of interesting elements soon made themselves apparent. I’ll start by considering some of the British Library’s best practices. The British Library has a gift shop – rather good and interesting one. As some readers may know, the British Library actually has a publishing arm (such a good idea!) and this is one of the places where one can get BL publications. The shop also had postcards, a good selection of books and items related to BL holdings. This is good marketing in its own right and something that I generally like on its own.
There is an extensive fundraising operation as well. As far as I can see, the BL fundraising arm has three distinct components; the Friends organization, Adopt a Book, and corporate sponsorship. The Adopt a Book program is most interesting – it lets donors opt to support donate toward conservation (apparently, Adopt A Book produces enough revenue to retain two full time conservationists!) and lets them identify a specific work they can be associated with with a bookplate. Current corporate sponsors include Microsoft, HSBC, Goldman Sachs and others. Many people I know in the information profession are uneasy with such partnerships and I can understand that concern. Cautious pragmatism strikes me as the order of the day for such programs. If that sort of arrangement can further the institution’s mission, it is worth discussing.
The Library’s public exhibition space can only be described as magnificant. I visited a permanent exhibition (Treasures of the British Library) and an exhibit on the civil rights in the UK (Taking Liberties: the struggle for Britain’s freedoms and rights). This second exhibit covered historical development of British law, with an emphasis on democracy, human rights and so on. There was also an interesting interactive element that permitted people to vote on issues as they were presented; everything from the oddly British fixation on surveillance to women’s rights. At the end of the exhibit, you could compare your votes with all previous participants. To make this work, the exhibit had wristbands with random barcodes printed on them which could be scanned at the various voting booths around the exhibit. This struck me as a good way to balance increased engagement with privacy concerns. That particular technical innovation is something worth exploring in other contexts.
The permanent exhibit featured the Library’s main priceless books, manuscripts and other documents. One can see one of the world’s few remaining copies of the Magna Carta, ancient books from around the world and fascinating ephemera such as Lenin’s application for a Library Card (he used a false name then, in the first decade of the 20th century). The low lighting, displays and ambience of the area also put me in a solemn mood which struck me as appropriate. I don’t think I have ever seen such a well designed exhibit in a Library anywhere with such a rich collection of materials.
A few final comments before I conclude this post. All around the London Underground, the Library’s Business and IP Centre is constantly advertised. I gather that this Centre is meant to assist people in building a businesses around their ideas. The Centre is one of the few areas where people can simply wander in without security checks or procuring a Library card. I do not know of any other national library that has ventured into this quasi-consulting role. I’m curious to know what prompted the development of the program, as it is so very different from the rest of the Library which mainly serves academic researchers. Unlike most research libraries I have visited, the BL has a number of seperate Reading Rooms for different topics (e.g. Science, Humanities, Music etc). I wonder if this degree of specialization encourages greater interaction between researchers as they are likely to have similar interests.
In summary, I think the British Library does many things well including exhibits and the shop and that it should serve as a model in some respects. It would be interesting to look at the Library’s data regarding these practices and see how they fit into the mission more generally.