One of the planet’s most precious collections of books, maps, and manuscripts, the British Library holds approximately 150 million items and adds 3 million each year, so when it puts the cream (about 200 items) on display, you will be positively astounded. The Treasures of the British Library, at the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, displays these in a cool, climate-controlled suite of black cases and rich purple carpeting. It ought to be mobbed, but isn’t. The trove changes whenever something needs to be taken out of direct light:
TOP DON’T-MISS EXHIBITS AT THE BRITISH LIBRARY
* Two of the four known copies of the Magna Carta, 800 years old in 2015
* The Gutenberg Bible from 1455
* The Beatles’ first lyric doodles: “A Hard Day’s Night” on Julian Lennon’s first birthday card (with a choo-choo on it) and “Michelle”
* The Diamond Sutra, the oldest known printed book, which was found in a Chinese cave in 1907 and was probably made by woodblock nearly 600 years before Europeans developed similar technology
* The Codex Sinaiticus, one of the two oldest Christian Bibles (the Pope has the other) and illuminated manuscripts from Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam
* Milton’s contract for Paradise Lost (he ended up getting paid just £10)
* A letter from Elizabeth I to James VI of Scotland warning him not to open diplomatic relations with Spain
* Captain Scott’s diary of his failed North Pole exploration, found on his body
* Michelangelo’s letter to his nephew telling him he had finished The Martyrdom of St. Peter, and pages from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, in mirror writing
* Works in the hand of Mozart, Handel (his Messiah), Oscar Wilde, P. G. Wodehouse, Mary Shelley, Bela Bartók, and more
* An 11th-century copy of Beowulf on vellum, in Old English; it’s the only surviving manuscript, written when Ethelred the Unready was king.
The King’s Library, some 85,000 tomes assembled by King George III, floats in a glassed-in central tower and forms the core of the collection, like Thomas Jefferson’s library does for Washington’s Library of Congress—which means that the King who lost America and a principal engineer of that loss provided the seeds for their respective nations’ libraries. The hall contains the Philatelic Exhibition, 500 drawers containing thousands of rare stamps.
You can’t handle books unless you’re a scholar, but the Library encourages anyone to hang out in its public spaces. In addition to the Treasures, the Library presents about 150 annual talks featuring celebrities and historians and some strong temporary exhibitions (about £12; check www.bl.uk/whats-on), including ones on Gothic horror, punk, and comic books. Twice a day, you can book an £8 tour of the facilities, although for all the hype over its architecture, the men’s and women’s washrooms are on opposite sides of the building and the whole place is riddled with little staircases.