the trouble with THE BRITISH LIBRARY

It's due for completion in 1997, but after 25 years of rebuilding, rewiring and generally screwing things up, nobody at the British Library is holding their breath. Has it been more trouble than it's worth?
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The Independent Culture
When you take 25 years to build a library, and the end is still only dimly in sight, strange things happen. Like bellbottom trousers, the look of the thing goes so far out of fashion that it comes round the other side. Colin St John "Sandy" Wilson, the architect of the British Library's new complex at St Pancras, is basking in the praise of his peers to a degree that would have been unthinkable during the heyday of high tech.

The public, meanwhile, who hate it as they hate everything prominent and new, gradually get used to it. Now, as completion nears, the building enters a mellow middle age where it will be taken dully for granted, like Centrepoint or the BT Tower. As a writer in the trade paper Building Design put it recently, "It looks set to be the first building to be Grade 1 listed before it is even complete."

But over the decades of cuts and cock-ups and painfully slow progress, the outside world has been changing fast. St Pancras nears completion as the information revolution is really taking off. The building's architects had the foresight to plan for extensive computer cabling, but access to the library's resources by personal computer is advancing so fast that the need for a thumping great monument such as this is beginning to be questioned.

Meanwhile, however, things are finally beginning to happen in Euston Road. A month or two back, the hoardings shielding the site came down. They had been up so long that one feels a twinge of loss now Jane Austen, Bernard Shaw and the rest no longer preside over the bus lane.

Now the great red-brick monster of the library complex stands exposed in all its abundant peculiarity: the ugly Meccano red of the metal cladding, the over-large, rather blank piazza, the odd-looking studs punched into the wall of the reading room, the corny-looking step motif down the side of the clock tower. One discovers what had not been apparent before, that the right- hand side of the complex, devoted to Science, Technology and Industry, is, bizarrely, in the form of a large ship, with uplifted, pointed prow, bridge, conning tower, even a porthole, ploughing south into Bloomsbury.

But with construction work well advanced, it is possible to see beyond the dated whimsicality of the exterior. The interior is beautifully articulated and splendidly detailed: full of travertine marble, pirbeck, Portland stone, American white oak. Unlike the Barbican, which I wrote about last week, there will be no problem here about spotting the entrance, and no reason to get lost once inside. The entrance lobby, rising up in waves towards the skylit roof, is already an awesome pace; when it culminates in a six-storey glass-walled tower lined with books, it will amaze.

The different departments - the five reading rooms, the rare books area, the three exhibition areas, the shop and so on - lead off from the lobby in logical fashion, and the way the building works can be read from the outside: the neatly stacked, louvre-protected floors of Science, Technology and Industry, the broad, shallow roofs and clerestory windows that define the Humanities reading rooms.

Prince Charles, among others, has remarked that it doesn't look like a library - but what does a library look like? The reading room of the British Museum, for the future loss of which the hearts of the traditionalists are already bleeding, doesn't look like anything, buried as it is within the museum. The Victorians designed libraries in any number of different styles. Dominique Perrault, architect of France's new Bibliotheque Nationale, thinks that four L-shaped skyscrapers are appropriate. Sandy Wilson should, at the very least, be no more badly wrong than that.

But as the people who run the library point out with some exasperation, the architecture is only a small part of the story. For one thing, the building is not their baby until it is finished - it is the Department of National Heritage's. For another, "the world's leading resource of scholarship, research and innovation", as the library styles itself, is doing pretty well, thank you, even in the absence of a building.

Brian Lang, the Scottish chief executive, may have his headquarters in a Portakabin on wasteland at the back of the St Pancras building site - but a better appointed Portakabin you would be hard pressed to find, and from here he masterminds the activities of 3,400 staff who, though scattered across 21 sites in London and a big building in Boston Spa, know that one day they (or at least a majority of them) will be gathered in.

"Joining any institution is like looking at a tribe for the first time," says Lang, who previously worked for the National Trust, but whose first career was in social anthropology. But whatever sort of spectacle this diaspora of librarians presented to his eyes when he arrived in 1991, they are now, he assures me, united in the task of "turning the British Library from a repository of books to a supplier of information".

The books, of course, will continue to pour in, as well as the magazines, newspapers, journals, records, CDs, cassettes, stamps etc, one copy of each published in the UK, and as many from abroad as the budget will stretch to: 18 million books, 33 million patent specifications, 8 million stamps, and growing daily. What changes is how that material will be accessed by the people who need it. Thanks to the Internet, thanks to Janet (Joint Academic Network) and Opac (Online Public Access Catalogue), much of the library's material is accessible by modem; Beowulf and the Magna Carta, to name but two. The amount accessible increases all the time: if Karl Marx were researching Das Capital today, he could have done much of it on screen at home.

Radicals argue that, instead of a monument to rival the Great Midland Hotel next door, all the library needed was a whopping great storage shed halfway up the M1. Certainly, of all the institutions which the information revolution is transforming, libraries are most directly in the line of fire: the most archaic, the most comprehensively defined by the fact that books are three-dimensional objects which you can only access by picking them up and opening them. When that tactile necessity goes, the whole concept is etherised. Unlike, say, newspapers or universities, where real human intercourse remains indispensable, there is nothing left.

But the more the mundane necessity of going to a library and consulting books withers away, the more important the symbolic role of an institution like the British Library becomes. Sometimes we need to feel the texture of the past with our hands in order to grasp it, to smell the parchment, feel the quality of the vellum, invest imaginatively in the lives of people whose only access to knowledge was through these things. The further our culture moves away from the book, the more important the possibility of doing that will become.

In 1784 the French architect Boulee, arguing for the creation of a national library, wrote: "A nation's most precious monument is, beyond any doubt, that which is the repository of all the knowledge that it has acquired." No less than the French in 1784, we need, as an imposing presence on the skyline, a reminder of the wisdom our civilisation has accrued - lest we forget.

Yet it is an obligation that has been very grudgingly taken on board by successive governments. The tale of the British Library's development since its establishment by Act of Parliament in 1972 is a catalogue of embarrassments: movable shelving that had to be replaced, faulty air conditioning, a ceiling that was too low and had to be rebuilt, miles of faulty wiring that had to be ripped out and replaced. It is a story of overlapping bureaucracies, small and endlessly eroded budgets, shrinking aspirations, venal sub-contractors, and people who saw advantage in postponing the project's completion until their retirement. The final bill is likely to exceed pounds 500m, almost three times as much as originally budgeted. Much of the extra expense is due to the piecemeal way the building has had to be constructed, due to the Government's parsimony.

The cuts imposed by Kenneth Clarke in the Budget are the latest blow, hitting the Library's annual grant as well as the special grant it will receive to pay for the move. Brian Lang worries aloud about his ability to maintain staffing and service levels as a result.

What the British Library has always lacked, in a word, is proper patronage. The tentative schedule from now is as follows: mid 1997, open to the public; mid 1998, gala opening; 2000, all books in place, fully functioning. If none of these dates is kept, no one will be surprised. It is in the nature of the British Library to stagger on from year to year. It is what is expected.

Sooner or later the statue in the piazza by Eduardo Paolozzi, of Newton as depicted by Blake, will be unwrapped for the delectation of passers- by. Known in the library as "man laying carpet tiles", the figure is bent double, measuring the universe with a pair of compasses. Emblem of a world-view that has in this century been proved wrong and discarded, it's what you might call a hostage to fortune.

Next week, Peter Popham assesses the trouble with the Victoria and Albert Museum