A repository of passions

The British Library not only supports world-class research, it also inspires rhapsodies from scholars around the world. Matthew Reisz explores colourful tales behind the unique collections at the heart of a well-loved institution.

January 31, 2008

The British Library is without doubt one of the world's great libraries, but how often does one hear a Brit expressing a deep emotional attachment to it?

Other people have felt differently. In 1953, on the occasion of the bicentennial of the British Museum, the editor of a London-based Polish newspaper called Wiadomosci asked a number of scholars and writers in exile for their views on the museum and its reading room. Twenty-one people replied, many with outbursts of lyricism.

One praised "the light surfaces, the gently soaring cupola, the radial arrangement of the tables, the partitions between them, the cork floor covering which absorbs all the little noises". Another thought the tedious task of consulting and replacing the hefty volumes of the catalogue "good and useful exercise for those who must work with their brains". Fond memories even extended to the ladies' cloakroom, which was staffed by "two enchanting old crones" who were obsessed with cats and had tales of Americans who stole the crown-embossed toilet paper and a distinguished scholar who was once caught using it for note-taking.

The anecdotes are amusing, but what is most striking is the depth of emotion. Poles rejoiced in the reading room as a place where you could forget that you were "merely a stray of unrecognised descent", which made it "an excellent antidote to the contemporary tragedy of the age and to our national catastrophe".

"We ourselves," one reader noted poignantly, "move from flat to flat, from suburb to suburb, but the 'British' endures. When German bombs wounded it, we experienced just as much, if not more, pain than the English." The British Museum was "the nicest Polish club in London", the library the "National Library for the Poles in exile" - because it made "academic studies possible for those unable to prosecute them in their own countries and in their own libraries".

And this is the crucial point: the British Library attracts committed and often passionate researchers from all over the world trying to disentangle their own national histories. This is partly, but only partly, to do with the sheer volume of its holdings.

Scholars come from countries once part of the British Empire, countries long subject to censorship, countries where archives have been destroyed by bombs or monsoons, or where archives are too just nationalistic, inaccessible, expensive or disorganised for easy use.

The state archive in Israel, for example, according to one frustrated researcher, "lacks a centralised cataloguing system, many of its employees seem amused by their total lack of knowledge, and almost every file and each photocopy must be bargained for, argued over, won as though in a wrestling match". Who can blame her for taking the first plane to London?

There are major and often unexpected historical turning points for which the British Library holds some of the essential source material. Take what is now the Czech Republic. At a crucial conference in Brno in 1947, a prominent unionist called Blazej Vilim (1909-76) was voted leader of the Social Democrats. Unlike his defeated rival Zdenek Fierlinger, he was opposed to a merger with the communists that would probably have won them power at the ballot box. As a result, the communists seized control of the country by force in February 1948, and Vilim fled to Germany and eventually to England. His plans to establish an officially recognised government-in-exile, however, were thwarted by the British decision to maintain diplomatic relations with the new Czech regime. He remained a sharp and well-informed observer of the show trials and other developments in his homeland.

The communist coup was obviously the pivotal event that has shaped Czech history ever since, and Vilim's diary and other papers are a crucial eyewitness source. Although anti-communist, he remained a man of the Left; his widow was worried that in either Czechoslovakia or the US the archive would soon be filleted for (opposite) political reasons. Even when she gave it to the British Library, access was long limited for fear that crucial documents might be destroyed by communist agents posing as readers. The documents are now regularly consulted by Czech researchers.

Even a long-gone row of palm trees on a neglected map can suddenly become the focus of a fierce international dispute. When Israel was about to return the Sinai to Egypt under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty, a major disagreement broke out over the Bedouin village of Taba. It was hardly prime real estate, except that the Israelis, who took control of the area after the Six-Day War in 1967, had built a 400-room luxury hotel there.

The border, which dated back to the 1906 agreement between Britain and the Ottoman Empire, was most clearly defined on the manuscript British maps, which included details such as individual tombs that were eliminated from the larger scale published versions. On one memorable occasion, Egyptian and Israeli delegations of professors and lawyers turned up in the library's map room on the same day to pore over the details.

Other politically and militarily sensitive maps came to the library through a royal bequest. King George III (1738-1820) was a passionate map collector who often held on to those that crossed his desk in his official capacities. A few depicting battles were kept at Windsor Castle after his death, but most of his geographical collection went to the British Museum with the King's Library in 1828. Not long afterwards, in 1836-37, the Board of Ordnance was going through the Ordnance Survey maps at the British Museum Library to ensure that it possessed a complete set. Officials were astonished to discover that details of every fort in the British Empire were openly accessible to anyone who wished to come and look.

Later, in 1839, the Foreign Office got an anonymous tip-off that the British Museum held another potentially embarrassing item. This was the famous "red-line map" marked up by Richard Oswald, secretary to the British delegation to the Paris Peace Conference of 1782-83, which ended the American War of Independence.

It set out where the British, after extensive research, thought that the Treaty of Utrecht and other agreements established the border between the US and Canada (as well as the boundaries between various American states). In the event, however, the Americans agreed to cede a larger section of the southern shore of the St Lawrence River. Because this border remained a matter of dispute, the map was an admission that the British had got more than they felt they deserved - and so it was quietly spirited away to the Foreign Office in 1840. Now back in the British Library, it is still sometimes cited in inter-state disputes about offshore mineral rights.

Most significant of all, perhaps, are the 14km of shelves containing the India Office Records, which are absolutely crucial for those studying the history of the subcontinent and the areas of the Middle East and the Gulf that the British once controlled from India. These naturally cover the whole period from the Battle of Plessey in 1757, when the East India Company began to take responsibility for administering territory and raising taxes, up to independence in 1947, but they go back to the creation of the company in 1600. Here are all the official documents, comprehensive legal deposits in 15 to 20 different languages, complete Cabinet papers - the Secretary of State for India was a full member of Cabinet - including the kind of sensitive material that occasionally gets withdrawn from the National Archives "for administrative purposes".

But one can also gain a much richer and less official picture of how India and the Indians were governed through the private diaries of viceroys, collections of prescribed books and the reports of Indian Political Intelligence on London-based Indians in the 1920s and 1930s considered sympathetic to the independence movement. Some were even followed into the British Museum itself so agents could record which books they ordered from the stacks.

It is also here that one gets the best sense of Britain's "intellectual conquest" of India, through censuses and vast quantities of research into disease, land settlement, languages, local systems of government, religion, wildlife and just about everything else. The country was properly mapped far earlier than England (since Parliament was controlled by landowners who didn't want surveyors crawling all over their property), and the coverage is still definitive for militarily sensitive coastal and border areas.

Because India, including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh, was administered through taxes raised locally, there were calls at the time of independence for all this material to be handed "back" to the subcontinent. This never happened, of course, and, despite an extensive programme of microfilming, many scholars - as well as former High Commissioners, visiting ministers and delegations of senior civil servants - regularly come to the British Library to look at the India Office Records.

Some have delved into those dealing with the British administrations in Aden, which continued until 1967 and include sensitive intelligence reports where the names of British, but not Yemeni, agents are blacked out.

In 2005, as part of an official "Cultural Heritage" programme to shed light on Kazakhstan from archives to which scholars have only recently had access, a historian from the Kazakh National University conducted research leading to an article on the seizure of the Khiva Khanate by Russia in 1873.

Much of this will be pretty obscure even to British academics. But that is precisely what is most intriguing about working in the British Library. A reader can be sitting there looking into the Metaphysical Poets or village life in Gloucestershire while someone at the next desk is busy reconstructing riots or revolutions in distant parts of the globe.

On 30 October 2007, the British Library piloted an initiative as part of its higher education team's strategy to engage with the sector. More than 170 English literature research postgraduates from across the UK were invited to attend a day of talks, workshops and networking opportunities at the St Pancras site. This was the first in a series of training days planned for research students.

The pilot training day - held in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council's National Research Training Scheme in English Language and Literature and the Institute of English Studies, University of London - focused on English literature from the late 19th century to the present. Students had the opportunity to learn about all aspects of the British Library collections, from oral history recordings to modern literary manuscripts and ephemera, through sessions with curators and special workshops. Delegates were also given training on how to access online and electronic catalogues, carry out bibliographic research and meet expert curators in their field.

The day ended with a panel discussion chaired by author and biographer Anne Sebba entitled "Will new resources and technologies change the way we research in the future?" She was joined by representatives from Microsoft Research Cambridge, Wikimedia UK, the library's Digital Lives project and Adrian Arthur, the library's head of web services.

Travel bursaries of up to £30 per student were available to help make the event accessible to research postgraduates from across the UK.

According to Joanna Newman, strategic partnerships manager at the library: "The day offered valuable networking for students, and may initiate new research projects that spring from our collections and our collaborations with higher education institutions across the UK."

The following further training days are planned for 2008:

History: 18 March

Social sciences: 13 October

English literature (medieval to 18th century): 20 October

English literature (19th to 21st century): 28 October

History (medieval to 18th century): 4 November

History (19th to 21st century): 21 November

Modern foreign languages: 9 December.

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