One of the planet’s most precious collections of books, maps, and manuscripts, the Treasures of the British Library at the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, is displayed in a cool, climate-controlled suite of black cases and rich purple carpeting. It ought to be mobbed, but isn’t. The 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 trove changes, but it has included:
* Two of the four known copies of the Magna Carta, 800 years old in 2015
* The Beatles’ first lyric doodles: “A Hard Day’s Night” on Julian Lennon’s first birthday card (with a choo-choo on it) and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” sketched far from suburban Liverpool on Lufthansa airline notepaper
* 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
* Jane Austen’s diary and writing desk
* Michelangelo’s letter to his dad telling him he had finished the Sistine Chapel and pages from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, in mirror writing
* Music in the hand of Mozart, Handel, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn (The Wedding March)—you can listen to the final works on headphones
* 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 the King who lost America and a principal engineer of the loss provided the seed for their respective nations’ libraries.
The hall contains the Philatelic Exhibition, 500 vertical drawers containing thousands of rare stamps. You can’t handle books unless you’re an accredited scholar, but the Library encourages anyone to hang out in its public spaces.
In addition to the Treasures, rotating exhibitions are on display. Head to the info desk; twice a day, you can book an £8 tour of the facilities and its conservation standards.