Shhh . . . in the Library
The British Library of Euston Road, London is next to King’s Cross and St Pancras International rail stations. It received the highest listed building status, and joins the top 2.5% of listed buildings in England. As per History of the British Library, the origins and foundations of this significant library which was established in 1753 started as a donation that was given to the library from the Royal book collection of King George III.
Libraries were in existence long before Britain was even called Britain. Over millennia they have embodied intellectual high point of a civilisation promoting the values, traditions and history that bind a people together. This fact is also well understood by conquerors who will typically attempt to destroy all forms of social cohesion that might spur resistance. Libraries and museums are prime targets for destruction for more than financial reasons.
The destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria is also one of the greatest cultural losses in history (one of many). This institution was at its height from the 3rd century BCE and was the focus of academic studies of all kinds in the ancient world. Destruction took place in waves beginning with the Romans under Julius Caesar and reaching a conclusion sometime after the Muslim conquest in the 7th century.
There are many other lamentable examples, the Imperial library of Constantinople was destroyed by Christian crusaders, the House of Wisdom in Bagdad was destroyed by Mongol invaders and the Madrassah library in Cordoba was destroyed during the Christian reconquest of Spain. Oddly, there are more recent examples too, in 1548 CE, Glasney Library in Cornwall was destroyed in an attempt to suppress Cornish language and identity. These events, alas, continue.
Before the advent of printing, books were often truly irreplaceable. They were the possession of the very wealthy or academic institutions in `chained’ libraries. There are still a few chained libraries to be seen around Britain. As books began to cheapen in the 18th century, subscription libraries were formed. This still left libraries out of reach for most people. In 1850, the Public Libraries allowed local authorities to run free libraries and these rapidly thrived. Into the 20th century, these were heavily used, however, books continued to become cheaper and up-to-date information is often more easily be obtained online. I do know that libraries are practical but I too am tempted by the pristine look and feel of new books and the wonderful sales pitch on the book which has been phrased by some of the world’s most talented wordsmiths. A new paper book often costs £7 and that is not cheap for a lot of us at all. We get them home we often read them once and put them on our bulging shelves in our small modern houses. Libraries have modernised and now also offer very popular internet services but there is still pressure to close them and many have closed already.
Although books are cheaper than ever, however, they are not free and many people on lower incomes (often those on pensions) do rely on libraries. Where libraries have closed some local communities have found imaginative places to create tiny local libraries and informal book exchange is popular in all kinds of places. The internet is corruptible; books can last centuries and embody us. I do hope we can remember to use them and look at content rather than covers.
Meanwhile, I would like to invite all to Explore the British Library. and / or pay it a visit if you happen to be in the neighbourhood. According to Wikipedia, the British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and the largest library in the world by number of items catalogued. It also has a document storage centre and reading room near Boston Spa, 2.5 miles (4.0 km) east of Wetherby in West Yorkshire.