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Monday, March 26, 2007

British Library, London

With a couple of hours to spare last week in London before my flight back home, I opened a map of the city and looked for somewhere to kill the time. Usually King's Cross is not an area of London I go to unless I have to, but I spotted the "British Library" building next to the station so I decided a library would be a good place as any (at least one is spared the aggravation of walking out empty-handed). Little did I know how much I would enjoy this unplanned visit.

When I arrived at the plaza outside the building I was bewildered to see a large group of people, perhaps a couple of hundred, standing silently in the open area facing the library and looking at the building. Some of them were wrapped in what looked like aluminium foil. At the entrance to the library was a line of uniformed men, blocking the entrance. An eerie sight indeed. Before I had a chance to figure out what was happening, everybody suddenly started moving towards the building and the doors were opened. Apparently, I had arrived in the middle of a fire drill.

After enquiring at the information desk I headed to the Sir John Ritbalt Gallery, hosting the permanent exhibition of the library. Entering a large darkened room filled with glass displays I found treasures I had no idea existed in this building. Here is a partial list of the items I remember:

  • The Gutenberg Bible, first book printed using a movable print maching

  • Captain Cook's journal

  • A hand-written application by Lenin for membership in the library

  • Letters written by Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse

  • Letters written by John Maynard Keynes, the great economist

  • Beautiful religious manuscripts, among them siddurim and haggadot

  • Original manuscripts from Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce, William Shakespeare and many others

  • Scientific notes written by Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, William Harvey and others

In a separate smaller room, there is a copy of the Magna Carta (I saw it at the British Museum many years ago but didn't realise there was more than one copy).

But the item which touched me most was the diary of Robert Scott, the British navy officer that came second in the race to the South Pole (losing to the Norwegian Amundsen). Scott and his companions died on the way back to their base, and the diary Scott kept is on display. It is open on the last page, where the last entry (in barely legible handwriting) reads: "For God's sake look after our people".

I wish I had more time to browse the library, but time flew by very quickly. I will be sure to return here to have a longer look at some of these truly extraordinary historical documents.

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