Friday, 15 May 2015

Ode from a Nightingale: Camden, The British Library and Me by Richard Price

Recently, Camden has been celebrating fifty years as a London borough. They asked me, as Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library, to reflect on what the Library was like all that time ago and how it hopes to be in the future.  The original article is at their Camden50 site where lots of articles of interest have their home (I am biased, but I think the theme of many of the pieces is a lot wider than the life of the borough, though it is about that, too). This blog is based on that original article, with a few further thoughts woven in.

Strictly speaking of course, fifty years ago the British Library didn't exist. In fact we have only recently published our Living Knowledge document which looks forward to 2023, when we will reach that half-century.

Although we have some venerable predecessors, our 1973 date of birth actually makes us one of the more recent national libraries in the world. I have been in the library for over twenty-five years and it still feels ‘new’ to me, as if innovation were part of its DNA. Actually, that was the intention and it still is.

The interior of the British Library with the smoked glass wall of the King's Library in the background.
Courtesy of the British Library, CC BY-SA 2.0
The principles of our inception still guide us, even if the detail is different: the new British Library brought together astonishing collections from much earlier days to safeguard them for future research and, through exhibitions and publications, to share them with the public. This is the home, after all, of illuminated manuscripts which include the Lindisfarne Gospels, the earliest examples of printing in Europe (and, much earlier, in China), and of sound recordings which, incredibly, record the voices of Robert Browning and Florence Nightingale, to name just two.

Florence Nightingale makes me think of actual nightingales, and the famous poetry dedicated to one of those magnificent birds. We not only have the manuscript of Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale in the Library, we have the first ever published recording of any creature, which  happened to be one of those glorious songsters. An international collection, this Ode from a Nightingale, as it were, was made by a bird in a Bremen aviary, with the recording released in 1910. (I say the word ‘released’ and I think of that poor bird, never, I assumed, to be freed). The recording was later used as part of the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi’s orchestral piece The Pines of Rome a dozen or so years later – this nightingale, like all safely kept knowledge, perhaps like all joy, managed to be a migrant across time through voice if not in body. 

I love that the Library, as well as having the Keats poem, has a creature who is in a way ‘talking back’ to Keats (we also have a more recent recording of a nightingale as part of our British Wildlife collections by the way), so that the Library becomes a place of debated and intricate worlds, where subject and object may switch around. There is also something very special about the vulnerabilities here – Keats, despite the vigour of his poetry, dying young, and nightingales themselves, whose song can only be heard in April, May, and June, and who are on the RSPB’s Amber List. They have declined terribly in the last few hundred years and are still declining in the UK, but have been recovering at least in Europe. I hope that our sound recordings are not a collection in memory of the extinct, but an inspiration against extinction.

As well as collections, the new Library also brought expertise – gathering together teams of specialist staff to serve a vast cross-section of researchers, businesses and the wider public. I guess the extraordinary energy of the UK in the 1960s led directly to our creation, the same kind of radical thinking which had brought about the Open University, founded in 1969, with its inspiring motto, Live and Learn. Like the OU, the British Library imagines knowledge to be an almost organic quality which grows as it helps people to grow, whether they are in formal education or not. We try to sum it up in one sentence: we make our intellectual heritage accessible to everyone, for research, inspiration and enjoyment.

At the British Library, St Pancras. Photo by Tony Antoniou
Like the Library I was only a child in the 1970s. I remember being fascinated by the concept of infinity then and when I reflect about the Library I find that ideas of infinity are never far away. Typically a schoolyard argument would involve this concept– “I’m infinity better than you are at conkers!” might be my brag (or “cheggies” as conkers was also known in Scotland). Then there would be a bewildering but somehow exciting response: “No you’re not: I’m infinity plus one.”
There seemed then a bond between that colloquial infinity at human, ground, level and a scientific infinity far above us, from a tiny circle of a chestnut to the vast orb held in our gravitational field – the Moon. In those days, the Moon landings prised open not just a door on to the universe’s endless nature (an exhilarating thought), they hinted at the infinite possibilities of human achievement, too.  A glimpse of infinity was in the air when the Library was born and I believe the Library caught some of its futurist spirit.

By coincidence I started at the Library on a day which seemed to have the ‘infinity’ sign inscribed in it (if you think of the figure of eight in that way): the 8th of the 8th 1988.  I was a cataloguer, working with the UK ‘legal deposit’ collections.  The UK really is a creative leader and it’s no surprise that it is one of the world’s most prolific publishers. It produces, well, not quite an infinite number of books but at times it can seem that way! (Roughly speaking, about a hundred thousand new books, excluding reprints, are produced in the UK every year). The Library is particularly special because of this legal deposit status –this is the law which obliges every publisher in the country to send one copy to us of each book, magazine or newspaper they publish. Over time, we have built the greatest collective snapshot there is of UK published thought and creativity. Recently this has been updated to include digital publications, and so, for example, one of our modern treasures is the vast collection of UK websites we gather, available to anyone who has a reader’s pass (and with a curated selection freely available online at 

“Happy #WorldBookNight from the British Library! Some happy customers at our spot on Charlton Market”
British Library tweet 24
th April 2015
When I started at the Library, our cataloguing offices were based just off Wardour Street in Soho and it was quite something to walk to work past household name film companies, past independent cafes and eateries, past just-closed all-night bars - which seemed both dubious and glamourous all at the same time.  In those days we actually had a dozen or so sites across London with all kinds of service delays and complications ensuing. It was clear that we needed to make things simpler and quicker for our readers, we needed to move our exceptional collections away from substandard housing and into preservation conditions they deserved. We also needed to let more of the public see more of the thought-provoking and beautiful objects in our care (see… and hear – we have well over six million sound recordings in our collections).

Back in the 1990s I changed job to be part of the transformation, becoming an information officer for the St Pancras building project, helping to explain how a single new building at St Pancras would give great benefits to readers and public alike. Although I have since come back to curatorship I still regard those years as among my proudest. It wasn’t just about a building – though we are delighted that today we receive more than 1.5 million visits a year – it was about the Library realising more of its potential to flourish.

Jamie Hewlett design for Comics Unmasked at the British Library © Jamie Hewlett 2014
Today it is still about being part of a willed future, working for a still new institution specifically designed to keep our cultural heritage safe, to share knowledge better and further afield, and to use our collections to create events and exhibitions which provoke thought and give pleasure to all who come to them. You can see that spirit of wonder and exploration in our recent activities. Yes, certainly the blockbuster Comics, Gothic and Magna Carta exhibitions, which have reached out to new audiences seeking knowledge and enjoyment, but also, for example, in our Business and IP Centre designed to help small businesses (there is a centre in our flagship building in St Pancras, but we have already rolled out the concept in other city libraries across England).  In the next fifty years I am sure there will be technical and cultural developments no-one can foresee, but there is one certainty: the British Library will still have a vast thirst for making a positive difference through information and culture. It’s what we’re here for.

Richard Price is the Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library, and the author of acclaimed Carcanet collections Lucky Day and Small World. This article is based on his #Camden50 article ”Infinity and the British Library”.

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For the next two weeks, we're giving you 25% off Richard Price's Small World

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