The belated opening of the new British Library is the culmination of a 50 year argument over the whole library system. Nicolas Barker recalls the twists and turns in the story and his role in persuading Margaret Thatcher to agree to the new building on Euston Roadby Nicolas Barker / December 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
The british library-the very name conjures up an image of intellectual vandalism; “them” again at their dread antics; failing to act when action was needed; getting it wrong when “they” finally came to do something. But as John Bright said of the Union side in the American civil war, we have somehow managed to “muddle through.” On 24th November, the new library will open its doors to the first readers. It will be a “soft opening,” as they say in the hotel trade-no great fanfare at the beginning, although a royal ceremony is planned for next June. For a project so famously marked by frustration and delay it seems unkind to point out that there will be plenty more of both, as readers and staff adapt to a new way of life. But the problem of adjusting to the building is, of course, dwarfed by the immensity of the project and the time it took to realise. In all this, the building itself has played only a part-if one that has latterly dominated discussion.
It all goes back to the second world war and Sir Henry Thomas, described by Stanley Morison as “five and a half feet of the finest Anglo-Spanish bibliographical scholarship.” Thomas became principal keeper at the British Museum during the war; he thus became more aware than his predecessors that space for books was finite. Already some of the best space had been wrecked by the need to squeeze in more books. The bombs which fell, destroying 150,000 books, made matters worse. Thomas advocated moving the entire library out of the British Museum complex. One of the trustees of the museum took up the idea and suggested a site to the east. When peace came, the London County Council turned this down and suggested instead the area to the south.
For over 20 years this remained the focus of the museum’s hopes and aspirations, encouraged if not ratified by successive governments. In 1962, trustees’ expectations were so far raised that they appointed Leslie Martin and Colin St John Wilson as architects (the latter finally saw the job completed 35 years later). In 1964 plans were presented; they involved the demolition of most of the buildings between the museum and New Oxford Street, and the creation of an open piazza linking the museum with Hawksmoor’s St George’s church in Bloomsbury, whose north apse would have at last become visible. But in October 1964 the Conservative government fell and the trustees had to begin again with the new administration.
It fell to Patrick Gordon Walker, secretary of state for education, to introduce the bill authorising the extension of the British Museum, prompted by the trustees’ 1966 report on the museum. But the trustees had not reckoned with the animus against Gordon Walker which his electoral misfortunes had generated: he had lost first Smethwick and then the “safe” seat of Leyton. In particular, Barbara Castle, Bessie Braddock and Lena Jeger, feeling (perhaps rightly) that no such electoral safety net would have been extended for a woman, decided to take him on over the British Museum, which was in Jeger’s Camden constituency. The immediate casus belli was a few blocks occupied by some of Jeger’s poorest constituents. Richard Crossman, too, as minister of housing, had expressed reservations, writing in his diaries: “The whole Basil Spence concept of this new skyscraper-cum-piazza had seemed to me disgusting.” So although the project had existed since 1951 and ?2m had already been spent on it, Gordon Walker announced in October 1967 that the southern site for the extension had been abandoned. He added that he would appoint an independent committee to examine all the national libraries. This was the first the British Museum trustees had heard of any of this. They were offended-the more so because the minister declared that they had been “consulted.” There was an explosion.
I wrote at the time: “The government’s only further response was to curl up and shut up, like a hedgehog; they thus gained a sort of mute invulnerability.” Soon after, Lord Longford announced that the independent committee was to be chaired by Fred Dainton, vice-chancellor of Nottingham University, with Roy Allen of the LSE, John Brown, publisher of Oxford University Press, Bernard Miller, chairman of John Lewis, and David Talbot-Rice, the great Byzantinist. Their brief was “to examine the functions and organisation of the British Museum Library, the National Central Library, the Patent Office Library, the National Lending Library for Science and Technology and the Science Museum Library” and to consider whether they “should be brought into a unified framework.” This was the first expression of the concept which led to the formation of the British Library.
The Dainton committee was commendably brisk; the report of the National Libraries Committee was presented in June 1969. Some revealing facts emerged: the British Museum Library was the most heavily used, notably by foreign users; the National Lending Library of Science and Technology was doing a roaring trade up at Boston Spa in Yorkshire; the Patent Office Library was disastrously underused; and the National Central Library was failing in its prime function as the clearing house for the public library system.
The Dainton report recommended the establishment of a “National Library Authority.” The detailed recommendations were all clear and sound, (although the committee did not rise to the challenge of library automation). The report was unspecific on the “great site question”-but tucked away in the finance section was the assumption that Bloomsbury would continue to be used. The pay-off would come by transferring the lending libraries and part of the bibliographic services to the north. Land was cheap there, ?1.05 a square foot as opposed to ?5 in London; the cost of book loans would therefore fall from ?6 an issue to ?1.75. These calculations were part of a new approach to estimating what would now be called “value added” from a “co-ordinated information system.” The report’s merit was to point out that there is a return on such investment, whether in foreign visitors attracted or in the advance of learning.
But what of technology? I reviewed the report in the Book Collector at the time: “With storage and service costs mounting, and the world’s literature expanding ever faster, storage of the physical form of a book must soon become a thing of the past. Depressing though that may be for the bibliophile, he can at least reflect that, with libraries firmly committed to preservation in microform or on magnetic tape, the competition for the book itself may be less strenuous. And if libraries do not preserve books, the need to fabricate artificial rarities will disappear. Rare books will be really rare… if there are any books at all.”
Looking back almost 30 years later, there still seems something in that prophecy. Like the committee, I missed the impact of electronic communication and storage because it was obscured by the then fashionable microform. On the other hand, the flow of printed matter on paper has hardly been diminished; it has even increased, thanks to the ease with which the same text can now be produced in many forms. The problem of microform conversion remains equally unchanged: it is not the technology which is the bottle-neck, but the labour involved in taking a book off the shelf and turning its pages while the image on them is recorded. Of course the reductive capacity of digital is infinitely greater than microform, but the fact remains that most people who can read still prefer print on paper. The library’s basic need for expanding storage continues.
the first move to sever museum and library came from Ted Short, then Paymaster-General, in January 1970, who said that it had all been discussed and agreed with the trustees. Crossman records in his diaries that he did not believe such agreement had been reached. In any case the government fell soon after; and it was Lord Eccles, Paymaster-General in the Conservative administration and a trustee of the British Museum since 1963, who introduced the white paper, “The British Library,” in January 1971.
This envisaged an organisation less far-reaching than the Dainton committee’s “National Library Authority.” Perhaps the implications of such an “authority” had begun to dawn: what authority would it have over other copyright libraries, university libraries, and the locally funded public library system which would be supported by its central lending function? In any case, on 27th July 1972 the British Library Act was passed and the library came formally into existence; the following year the British Library Board was established and the library was in business. Lord Eccles, on losing his place in the government, found a congenial new task in the chairmanship of the board at ?7,500 a year.
There was one more attempt to revive the site south of the museum, but the area available had been reduced and Camden’s planning department would not cut back the amount required for residential purposes. This made it necessary to look elsewhere. In December 1974 the British Library Board found itself agreeing to examine the feasibility of a new nine-acre site to the north, on the disused Midland Railway goods yard next to St Pancras station. The following year the board accepted the site.
By now Martin had withdrawn from the architectural practice and Colin St John Wilson & Partners alone took up the new brief. Whereas before, given the existing basement areas of the British Museum and the possibility of extending them under the piazza as far as New Oxford Street, it had been a shallow lateral scheme (Crossman’s “skyscraper” existed only in his mind), the space now became a vertical one-albeit mainly underground. The total site was actually smaller than the Bloomsbury plan. A further problem was the adjacent St Pancras, whose uncompromising Victorian Gothic set limits, in style and space, on any new building. But the calculations could be recycled by computer, and by Christmas 1976 St John Wilson had produced a new design, to be built in three phases.
Gone was the white marble and Portland stone which would have echoed Smirke’s British Museum portico. Now, it was all red brick matching a St Pancras which had not yet been cleaned. The piazza had gone; instead there was to be a rectangular forecourt in the southwest corner of the site. To the north the buildings sloped back, gradually rising but still leaving open the sightline to St Pancras. On the northern perimeter, the plan was to add a much needed conservation bindery and workshop. Storage extended down through the equivalent of 12 floors, the last one below the two tube lines which run through, 60 feet below the surface. The original model featured a prominent smoke stack which caused some criticism. Wilson’s reply was characteristic: “Architects always include one feature that nobody will like. It’s like a lightning-conductor-you say ‘I’ll take it away at once,’ and everybody is pleased.” He was to need all his humour and resilience over the next 20 years, but the building itself did not change in essentials.
The early years of the library were surprisingly calm, considering the tumult preceding its birth. Lord Eccles and Harry Hookway, his deputy, made an admirable team, one forceful, the other adroit. Familiar with the ways of Whitehall, they were extremely successful in prising money out of successive administrations. The library had inherited from the museum a collection of books fragile after 200 years of storage in a polluted atmosphere and increasing use, notably since the publication of its complete catalogue in the 1960s, when American scholars flocked across the Atlantic. The British Library was given ?500,000, then ?1m, to put it right. It was not an easy task and the money was not always well spent.
For the reference division at Bloomsbury, continued co-existence with the British Museum was not easy; the transition from a corporate structure to one of landlord and tenant was painful. The trustees and the new library board fell out at once over the future of the King’s Library: was that noble room in the museum to be deprived of the books for which it had been built, or was the library to depart for St Pancras without one of its main constituent parts? The library won that battle, but at the cost of a progressive shortage of space and diminution of service. Nobody mentioned the Reading Room at this stage.
The next step was the announcement, on 7th March 1978 by Shirley Williams, then secretary of state for education, that the building’s construction would go ahead. It came in the form of a written reply to Lena Jeger, who no doubt wanted to see her victory irrevocably sealed. “The government intend to start the construction of a substantial first stage of the new British Library building in the Euston Road in 1979-80,” it began. “The first stage is expected to be occupied towards the end of the 1980s. The expected cost of the first stage, which will be spread over ten years, is ?74m (at June 1977 prices).” It ended, ominously: “Decisions on the remaining stages of the building will be taken later.”
But then, as before, at the crucial point the government fell; and with a new administration the whole plan slipped back. Norman St John-Stevas became Britain’s first ever minister for the arts, followed, with alarming frequency, by Paul Channon, Lord Gowrie and Richard Luce. None, until the last, seemed to take much interest in the library, but during this quasi-interregnum a change in the funding arrangements was made which had serious and damaging consequences for the library. Costs of the new building had hitherto been held in the accounts of the department of the environment, which was responsible for awarding the contract for it and supervising progress and expenditure. During Gowrie’s ministry, the cost was transferred to the ministry for the arts. No doubt it seemed a good idea at the time; it added considerably to the arts ministry’s budget and, on the principle that unto him that hath, more shall be given, this may have seemed a good augury. But the department of the environment, for all its many faults as a manager, at least had the manpower and equipment to supervise so large a project. That it did this badly was not even wholly its fault; like many other large publicly funded projects, this one was bedevilled by the Treasury’s archaic custom of handing out money a year at a time, so that no contractor could be persuaded to devote to the project the attention and resources needed over a long stretch, because there was no certainty that expenditure would be continued in the following year. Furthermore, no one person or agency seemed to be in charge of any part of the process.
But work had already begun on the site, which was stripped of the last remains of the goods yard buildings, leaving only the perimeter wall. Even while the government pondered the future of the library a group of cheerful navvies cleared the site and began digging. We used to joke that if the government finally changed its mind, it would take at least five years for the news to reach those already at work. Other parts of the project, by contrast, were already immovable. I remember being asked in 1977 to approve the proposed environmental conditions; I made some minor suggestions for change, only to be told that as the figures I had been given were “in the brief” no change was possible. In December 1982 the Prince of Wales unveiled the foundation stone. There was nowhere for him to lay it, so the ceremony took place in the library’s temporary office in Soho.
Prince Charles seemed to have forgotten this when he later characterised the new building as looking like “an academy for secret police.” True, the library had then reached its least lovely stage, an apparently amorphous mass of concrete, but it had already become fashionable to knock the new building.
It is rather difficult to spot exactly when this began. Early in Margaret Thatcher’s administration, influential people (notably Hugh Thomas) began to question again the desirability of leaving the museum building, in particular the Reading Room, which now became the focus of protest. It did no good to explain that the Reading Room was attached to storage quarters and conditions which had long since become unsustainable; still less to enquire why voices had not been raised in 1967 or even 1974, when the museum development was still an option. About now, too, a tiresome body called the “regular readers group” was set up, regular only in their frequent and usually ill-informed protests to the press, which began to take its line from them-the more so because the library, officially uncertain of its fate, had little positive to say in reply.
But on 16th December 1985 Richard Luce announced the decision to “proceed with the next stage of the new building.” This “stage” following that already approved (now costed at ?96m) would cost ?61m. This was a fudge; the two stages made up the original phase 1a, now split into 1aa and 1ab. The cost had doubled since the 1978 announcement.
In a sense, all this was window-dressing, for the crucial event had been taken place two years earlier. Lord Dainton, as he had become, was now chairman of the British Library Board (and I had come to know, admire and love him). One day he sent for me and said: “I have to persuade Mrs Thatcher that we need a new building. I don’t know if I shall succeed, but I was once her chemistry tutor, and I know one thing-we must keep the issue simple. It must be conservation. I shall go and say: ‘Mrs Thatcher, we need a new building because our books will fall to pieces if they stay where they are.’ I want you to find a few books that I can take with me to show how bad it is.”
This was a tall order. If I produced nothing but stretcher cases, might she not say: “Well, if they can’t look after their books better than this, they don’t deserve to have them-give them all to Oxford and Cambridge and close the place down”? So I carefully chose books which showed how hard we had tried to look after them-the copy of Areopagitica that Milton had given to George Thomason, probably in its third or fourth rebinding, for example. But to illustrate the terrible impermanence of acidic modern paper, I thought I might cheat a little. I added a book of my own, a Penguin copy of Michael Innes’s From London Far, printed in 1965 on paper now so brittle that it fell to pieces as you turned the pages. All the exhibits were packed in special boxes with labels explaining the problem, and the chairman set off for Downing Street. Some hours later I went to collect the books. “How did it go?” I asked. “Fine,” Dainton said, “we’ve got the new building-those books came in most useful, particularly that paperback.” “Oh, good,” I said, “she got the point about the paper?” “Well, I don’t know,” he replied. “She said: ‘You mean this could happen to Michael Innes?’ ‘Yes, Mrs Thatcher,’ I said, ‘or any other modern author.’ ‘But he’s the most wonderful writer, of course you must have your building.'” (Happily, I was able to tell the author how much more than books he had now brought into being.)
After this things began to move very much faster, and the basements, caverns measureless to man, were dug out in record time. The whole structure below ground was completed in 1987. Then the concrete shell went up. From time to time the library held receptions in the draughty shell, to convince people that it was now a reality. But elsewhere there were uncomfortable signs that this was an illusion. There was talk of “moth-balling” the whole scheme, of turning the building into a book store for a library still based at Bloomsbury. Cynics said it should become an underground car park for the Channel Tunnel. The latter was a new bugbear: if a great underground rail junction was created beneath St Pancras and King’s Cross, what effect would it have on the building? Would the land be too valuable to waste on a library? Godfrey Bradman and his Rosehaugh Estates hovered, only to sink through the trap of Black Wednesday. But at the insistence of John Major, at that time Chancellor of the Exchequer, Luce was only able to announce the “completion” phase (still only stage 1b) in June 1990, in exchange for the future sale of the land on which phases 2 and 3 were to be built.
Other things went wrong, notably the fiascos over the mobile shelving and the trunking for all the cables which increased automation required. Both were errors of managers, not manufacturers, though the latter were blamed by the press. The shelves were badly finished, not badly made; they shook a little in test, but adjustment cured that. Tales of collapsing shelves and falling books were pure fiction. As to the cabling, there was nothing wrong with the cables or trunking, nor with the building design which could still fit it all in; it was an error of supervision that caused the shredding of the trunking. Such errors could have been avoided but for the decision that to control costs, nothing in the original brief must be changed. The thing was set in concrete, literally as well as metaphorically, and if library technology had moved on, it was very expensive to make the changes needed to accommodate it.
Still, bricks began to cover the concrete, and the building began to take on its permanent form. Passers-by on Euston Road, who had been apt to avert their eyes, now became more appreciative. In December 1996 the books began to be moved in, a process to be completed in 1999. This is one part of the process which has gone without a hitch. The care with which each crate is packed, unpacked in the Midland Road entrance, checked off, and sent on to the correct shelf, has a reassuring human reliability, like the token system which ensured the safety of single-track railways.
The first public function in the new building this summer was a lecture given to the Friends of the British Library by Colin St John Wilson, the architect. It was a lively, even triumphant occasion-he is a brilliant exponent of his own work. There was no “I told you so,” only a display which showed where the ideas had come from-classic sources rather than the modernism of which he has been accused-and a vivid demonstration of how it worked, in visual as well as functional ways. For example, natural light has been let into the building without being allowed to fall on and thereby damage books. Above all, he asked us to look at and feel the interior finish. Nothing but the best materials had been used: hardwood doors and exhibition cases, handles and rails of brass and leather, all made by hand, perhaps the last great building that will ever be so blest.
And it does work, as a building. The light and the finish of the materials do lift the spirits. The books are spreading out in properly made and well protected shelves. There are details I still do not like, such as the clock tower which has replaced the chimney-quite superfluous, with the great St Pancras clock next door. I miss the old perimeter wall, and I find the main reading room chill, though that may alter when it is full of books and people. But the library is there, at long last. Others have had their doubts along the way, but never the architect. St John Wilson & Partners (“partners” has chiefly meant Mary Jane Long, his wife and a distinguished architect herself) have every reason to feel proud. They have had to bear the brunt of the difficulties: the sloth and incompetence of the department of the environment and the property services agency; the ignorant public criticism (now, at last, swinging round in their favour). When all is said and done it is not a strikingly beautiful building, nor in any particular style-any such could only have clashed horribly with the Gothic edifice next door. But it is a magnificent exercise in welding together the disparate needs of a large and complex organisation-and it is a notable piece of urban landscaping, easy on the eye and punctuated with elegant landmarks, of which Paolozzi’s powerful sculpture is one.
It remains to be seen whether the library itself can function in this splendid showcase. The move is trumpeted as “the biggest book-move in history”-12m books, over 60m separate items, 600,000 crate-loads, 5600 van journeys from 10 other places besides the British Museum. If this is completed on time, it will be another triumph. But the real test will come when the computer and mechanical systems are put to work. The on-line public access catalogue (Opac), already extant in embryo at Bloomsbury, is untested in its full function as the means by which a reader can establish identity and summon books. There is ABRS (the automated book requesting system), which records the movement and precise location of every item, wherever it is in the library. There is the mechanical book-handling system, an elaborate series of connected moving belts and hoists which will move books (packed in containers) from the shelf to wherever they are needed. All this is being tested now: it must be made to work with complete reliability, or the library will not be the slow, inefficient organisation it has become of late, but completely unworkable. The library’s publicity has been predictably optimistic; it speaks of larger hopes, and electronic links with libraries round the world. The proof will come when the new building is shown to be the success it deserves to be-even if, as it stands, it can only provide space for one third of the 3,500 reader places and half the 25m books originally promised. Before too long, the government must agree to build the long promised stages 2 and 3. Only then can the British Library achieve the purpose forecast for it, fulfilling a dream which I and many others have shared throughout our working lives.
It is 50 years since I was first given access to the contents of the British Museum Library. In the years I worked there, I never walked through the stacks without a slightly guilty feeling that I should be paying, rather than paid, for such a privilege. I regret what I must now leave behind, notably the Reading Room-one of the most efficient as well as one of the grandest rooms ever built for such a purpose-though I hope to be allowed to help in the task of finding a new place for books in the British Museum, which can only view the departure of what was its own reference library with the utmost regret. But now I look forward, after a year or two of more uncertainty, to renewing old acquaintance with the books in their splendid new home, hoping to find them as easily accessible, if in a wholly new way. I am eager to find my way about the new building, to see the new glass tower that will enclose the King’s Library. First and last, it is the books, still the irreplaceable means of human communication, that matter. Their well-being will justify the expense (now ?511m-is that so very different from ?74m at 1977 prices?), the effort and the anguish.