When I went to the UK in 2014, I arranged to spend a week there on my own while husband, Tim, did some travel writing research in Europe. A key activity for that week was to get access to the British Library’s collection.
I duly applied for a Reader’s Pass so I could use the reading rooms. That process could only be completed in the British Library itself, so I set aside a morning and took my paperwork in and walked out a relatively short time later with my reading card.
I proceeded, over that week, to spend six of the happiest hours of my life ever spent in a public building.
I had ordered in advance a bunch of documents on the Frost Fairs that used to take place on the Thames when it froze over. I ordered books on folklore, too, but the frost fair documents? Those?
The British Library gave me booklets published in 1814 that gave an account of the last Frost Fair. It gave me great, weathered scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings from the 18th and 19th centuries about earlier fairs, including much more mundane reports not of the fairs but of the cost to London’s poor who froze and starved and died in those harsh winters.
I was excited and engaged and I wrote pages and pages of notes (in pencil only, in a hardcover notebook used expressly for this purpose) for a planned novel in the Kitty and Cadaver universe.
Naturally, when I returned to London for a three week trip in September 2015, I made sure that I would get more use out of my favourite souvenir. I ordered a whole lot more books in advance – more on frost fairs and folklore for the Kitty book; a chunk of stuff on 13th century London for the same series; a bunch of things on Victorian life, clothing and steamships for The Adventure of the Colonial Boy, due out next year. Of my 21 days in London this year, I spent part or all of six of them at the library.
There is something incredibly thrilling about getting your hands on a primary source document. There’s a gleeful joy in being allowed to see a 200 year old book, to touch it and turn its pages. There’s a kind of awed reverence in wondering how many hands touched these pages before me, how many minds have read what I’m reading, and in wondering what each person may have felt or thought or concluded from the text, given their own lives and times.
There are also surprises to be found – like the essays from 1891’s Ocean Steamships reading almost like a post from a modern travel blog. This extract is from John H Gould’s Ocean Passenger Travel, reviewing the most recent steamship developments: “On the most unpretentious modern steamship there is room enough in the chamber to put up a small trunk and even other articles of convenience, and one may dress, if he takes reasonable care, without knocking his knuckles and elbows on the wall or the edges of his berth.’
Or these extracts from Travelling Palaces by AA Fletcher (1913).
The joys of the British Library go beyond its marvellous collection and the fact that they let you look at it. It’s a wonderful space, outside and in. The atmosphere is studious but also light; grand yet accessible; serious and playful. There are works of art within and without, including a chair that looks like a book weighted down by ball and chain, and a painting of bookshelves that makes your eyes turn inside out until you realised it not just trick 3D effect- it’s actually a sculpture.
The courtyard outside showcases all kinds of art too – it boasts a kind of summer house with surreal art at present.
Hell, I’m even so fond of the locker room (you can only take a clear plastic bag of your essential belongings into the reading room, and no pens – though you are allowed now to take photos of the texts for reference.)
Thank you, British Library, for letting me be one of the thousands of people who enjoy your pleasures every day. I’ll see you again soon, I hope.
In the meantime, I am eying off the State Library of Victoria and aim, very soon, to make her my primary mistress for primary sources.