Tomes come home

November 21, 1997

Dramatic settings, intricate plot, money, politics and colourful characters - yes, it's the story of the new British Library, which opens next week. Harriet Swain reports

The final chapter of a very long story finishes next week when the new British Library building welcomes its first readers. At the same time, in the much-maligned red brick building just completed on London's Euston Road, volume two opens. It will find up to 500 readers consulting collections of general humanities, librarianship, information services and recorded sound at desks of American oak under swathes of natural light.

At the press of a button, these readers can order from an online catalogue the material they need and return to their work, secure in the knowledge that a light on their desk will light up as soon as the material arrives in the reading room. This should usually be within half an hour, compared with hours and often days in the old library.

A six-storey tower of brass and glass dominates the heart of the building. By next March, this will be filled with the King's Library of rare books. A month later, the public, always excluded from the library when it was housed in the British Museum, will be able to visit exhibition galleries, a bookshop and restaurant. In May, listening services from the recorded sound collection begin and July sees the formal opening of the building. By the middle of 1999 it should be fully operational, with readers able to consult maps, manuscripts and science materials in 11 reading rooms.

Deep underground, about 12 million volumes will be stored in 300 kilometres of perfectly controlled conditions. Here staff will scurry around finding the requested book, placing it in a box and setting it on its way through a system of rollers and paternosters fitted with optical readers able to send the box to the correct delivery point by the quickest route possible.

Things are still frantic, says Brian Lang, British Library chief executive, in a break from final staff training. But he has complete confidence in the final product. The new library, he says, will offer better conditions for staff, readers and books. But, above all, it will be a symbol for Britain. "If Britain is anything, it is a literary nation," he says.

Initial reaction to the interior of the building has been positive. Even those readers most vocal in their mourning of the old library have bravely said they will give the new one a try. "They have been very very difficult years," says Lang. "But now it is all over."

If it really is all over and this smooth, futuristic operation works as planned, volume two of the British Library story will be a much duller tome than volume one. That was a tale also set in the heart of London, but which shifted settings from the round Reading Room in the British Museum (called "one of the most impressive and beautiful buildings in the world") to a planned piazza in Bloomsbury (plonking the new library over a Dickensian network of bookshop-lined streets) to the final site on the Euston Road.

The plot covered 35 years and numerous twists. First came a public outcry over the proposed Bloomsbury site and the scheme was dropped. Then, with the Euston project approved, there followed drastic cuts in government funding that slashed the number of readers' places from 3,500 to 400. (The final figure is 1,206.) With no guarantee of cash to finish the scheme, a reception block was built, designed to serve the library in its limited form, while keeping out of the way should further developments be approved. But when, in 1990, approval was given, the block was demolished.

Finally, John Major, then chief secretary of the Treasury, recommended selling four acres of the site to a developer. If this had happened, the chance of expanding the library in future would have been lost forever.

In the middle of all this, rusting bookshelves and bad wiring had become part of a list of more than 230,000 items that needed correction. Costs escalated. For like all good blockbusters, the British Library story is about money - more than Pounds 500 million of it and nearly three times the amount planned for the original, larger project. Last year, the National Audit Office slammed the project for being too expensive. The Commons Public Accounts Committee said: "We consider it unsatisfactory, given the size and duration of this project, that there was no total cash budgets for many years and no firm budgets for the works packages until 1995."

Demolition of the reception block cost Pounds 1 million, general delays and disruption more than Pounds 90 million. Professional fees amounted to Pounds 122 million. This is in addition to the Pounds 86 million or so of state money that goes to the British Library each year, and the Pounds 35 million that the library raises itself.

The library's architect, Colin St John Wilson, blames inflation, stop/start development and the Treasury's decision to levy 15 per cent VAT for sending costs rocketing. And his building is no cheap rubbish. "It is built to last and be easy to maintain," he says. "The level of craftsmanship is high and the materials are beautiful to look at and touch."

For many, though, St John Wilson has been the baddie of the story. The former Heritage secretary David Mellor said: "The only thing wrong with the British Library is the architect." He called the new library "a botch-up ... completely devoid of any sense of cultural or spiritual uplift". Prince Charles said the building looked like "an academy for secret policemen".

As a result of all this, St John Wilson, who had previously designed several university buildings and the Oxford University Law Library, has had to dissolve his practice. The bad publicity meant commissions simply dried up. But he vehemently defends his work. "There has been a lot of silly comment by people who haven't even seen it," he says. "The real judgement has to come from the readers." He is conscious that the building is "a sort of iceberg", with the real treasures, the books, out of sight. For this reason, he has made the base of the Kings Library collection of black marble, to hint at the basements underneath.

He has also made the interior consciously asymmetrical, with the humanities reading room, packed with people at desks, balancing more bustling science rooms, where many of the books will be on open access.

Dramatic settings, intricate plot, money, politics, colourful characters - the only ingredient missing in the British Library story it seems is sex. But not entirely. By all accounts, the old reading room, with its lowered lights, hushed atmosphere, hidden corners and gathering of overactive imaginations was a hotbed of passions. The new building looks like keeping up the tradition. Satirist John Wells has already described the leather banisters in the entrance hall as "very sexy".

So what happens in the end? After the dramas of the earlier chapters, the final pages of this story may be a bit of an anticlimax. What thrills are planned for the arrival of the new readers? Fireworks? Brass bands? Royalty?

Sshhh, whispers Lang. Nothing like that. "I hope people will come in quietly and be quietly and efficiently given their books," he says. "I don't want any excitement."

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