Why the British Library won't get a panning

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE Queen opens the pounds 520m New British Library on Thursday, for a little light relief she should ask to see the video produced for the building's 1,200 staff.

It solemnly informs them: "The New British Library has over 200 toilets. And each toilet is equipped with two rolls of paper."

It seems a rather tangential concern for a building which will boast 12 million books, 11 reading areas, exhibition and conference space, restaurant and coffee bar.

But the subtext is that for all the public rows over the controversial new building, its massive delays and ever-rising expense and the loss of the historic Round Reading Room at the British Museum, the new building in St Pancras, London, is modern, comfortable and efficient.

The average delivery time of a book to a reader who requests it is 50 minutes, an improvement on the full day it sometimes took when the library was in the British Museum building. The target is 30 minutes. Readers' desks in the impressive white reading rooms are wired for lap-top computers (though some banks of desks are lap-top free for those readers who find the sound objectionable).

Five of the 11 reading rooms are already open and others will open this summer, including the oriental and map rooms where the walls boast colonial portraits from the India Office.

"Five years ago who would have believed we would be opening now and that the Queen would be making a speech," Brian Lang, the chief executive, said yesterday, looking back on the publicly ridiculed, delays and Prince Charles's dislike of the building, which he described as "an academy for secret police."

But since November when the new Library first opened its doors to the public, reader satisfaction has been high and numbers using the building have increased by 44 per cent. The interior with its high, white atrium of creamy Portland stone makes an impressive entrance hall, with the stacks of leather-bound volumes of the King George the Third Library facing the visitor.

The humanities reading room seating 452, as opposed to the old library's 393, is comfortable, quiet and efficient even if it lacks the grandeur and tradition of Panizzi's domed Round reading Room in the British Museum, where Dickens, Lenin and Marx studied. Its height, with a second tier of reading space, gives a resonance of the domed room with its inner calm. And the Library has moved into the 21st century. Book requests are are made by computer, no longer on request slips sucked into pneumatic tubes.

Ironically, the growing reader satisfaction is about to have a spoke put in it. The board of the Library has drawn up plans to charge users of the reading rooms if the pounds 85m a year funding is not increased. Their proposals are likely to have exemptions for bona fide students and perhaps a reduced scale of charges for regular users. But the principle of free access will be ended. Details will be released next week.

The Library staff are working too on plans for a digital library transferring many of their manuscripts on to the Internet. Beowulf is already on the Internet. But Mr Lang promises that tradition and technology will go hand in hand.

"Since we put Beowulf on the Internet, we have had the biggest number of requests ever to see the original. The computerised version makes people hungry to see the writing in the scribe's hand."


1971: "White Paper says British Museum Library is "bursting at the seams" and rehousing the collections is a "desperate need".

1976: Government pays pounds 6m for a goods yard in St Pancras.

1978: Labour education secretary Shirley Williams approves a pounds 74m library to open by end of the 1980s.

November 1980: Conservative government reviews the project and gives the go-ahead again.

April 1982: Construction work starts.

1986: Government finds Public Services Agency underestimated costs, and increases provision for inflation from pounds 6.3m to pounds 31.6m.

1990: Government admits that the building that at the start of the Eighties was expected to cost pounds 116m and open in 1990 would now cost pounds 300m and open in 1993.

1991: Tests of new shelves find books could get damaged. First book moves have to be postponed.

1994: Numerous faults found, and questions raised over effectiveness of fire protection system. Gerald Kaufman MP describes Colin St John Wilson's design as resembling "a Babylonian ziggurat seen through a fun-fair distorting mirror".

1998: The Queen opens the New British Library. Final cost: pounds 520m.