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Bookmarking the British Library

by Joyce McGreevy on June 20, 2016

The carved lettering of the British Library's main gate, an artifact of English cultural heritage designed by David Kindersley, (Image C.G.P. Grey)

As designer of the iconic main gates, David Kindersley was truly a man of letters.
By C. G. P. Grey – C. G. P. Grey’s Photography, CC BY 2.0

Online Treasure Hunt of the World’s Cultural Heritage

Search engines—including some that rhyme with kugel, king, and kazoo—are the world’s “auxiliary brain,” the one we count on to have all the answers, all the time. But when it comes to repositories of cultural heritage, literary artifacts, and linguistic wisdom, all search engines lead to London. There you’ll find the ultimate must-know for all who must know: The British Library.

The interior of the British Library, with the smoked glass wall of the King's Library reflecting England's cultural heritage.

Every year, six million searches are generated by the British Library
online catalogue–more than 12 times the number of on-site visitors to the building.

Global Treasure Trove

The British Library is that figurative extra room that householders often dream about. And with 14 stories, nine above ground, its stacks are packed with treasure.

This 1899 book cover, A Floral Fantasy in an Old English Garden, found at the British Library online reflects Victorian English cultural heritage.

From the whimsical to the wonderful, the library’s
digitized images inspire obsessive exploration.

Officially tag-lined “The World’s Knowledge,” the library’s a mere babe by British standards. It was founded in 1973. Before that, collections were chambered within the British Museum. In those pre-digital days, “oculus” referred to an eyelike opening in the dome of the passholders-only Reading Room.  And how did one obtain a reader’s pass? It helped if your name was Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf.


The oculus in the dome of the British Museum Reading Room was part of Victorian England's architectural cultural heritage.

The oculus of the British Museum Reading Room
watched over a privileged few.

Today everything from the handwriting of  Woolf and Dickens to artifacts of punk rock are on offer to everyone who navigates busy Euston Road, crosses the brick piazza beside King’s Cross and St. Pancras Stations, and enters the stately portico.

Or who simply logs on.

Want to see the world’s earliest dated printed book? Here it is. Care to leaf through Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook? Leaf away. Shakespeare’s First Folio? Hie thee hither.

A design by Leonardo da Vinci for an underwater breathing apparatus, one of the treasures of world cultural heritage found in the online archives of the British Library.

Da Vinci’s design for an underwater breathing apparatus rises
to the surface of the British Library’s digital archives.

Oh, I see: There are more things in the British Library, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. If you looked at five items every day, it would still take 80,000 years to see the entire collection, give or take a century. So let’s tour just a few highlights of the Library’s incredible treasures.

Sounds Amazing

An image of two birds on branches from the book British Ornithology (1811), reflecting the visually rich cultural heritage of the British Library.

A pre-digital era “tweet”?

The Sound Archive dates back to 19th century recordings made from wax cylinders. So after reading the Incomparable Bard, listen to an “Immortal Bird.” It sings in the manuscript of John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and in this recording. You can even tweet it to your followers.

Discover the origin of the word soundscape and explore countless such audible places. Travel in two clicks, from the Amazon riverside at night to a distant thunderstorm in Zambia.

You can also experience the peaks and valleys of language itself. Anyone who’s seen Colin Firth onscreen as George VI in The King’s Speech will appreciate the poignancy of this example from the real-life royal.

Mystery Miscellany

Does your curiosity tend toward mysteries? Point your online magnifying glass at text evidence of how J. Sherrinford Holmes—alias Sherlock—became the world’s most famous literary detective.

Then hear the chief witness, Arthur Conan Doyle, reveal his real-life model for Holmes. The famed empiricist also enthuses about Spiritualism, reflecting a popular obsession of his era made all the more understandable by the tragic losses of World War I.

The library hosts hundreds of historical resources from both sides of the conflict, from personal letters and poetry, to speeches and posters.

The cover of Revelations of a Lady Detective (1854), reflecting the range of artifacts from English cultural heritage found online at the British Library.

The trail of online clues leads to 1854, when the fictional
Mrs. Paschal became one of the first female detectives to appear
in a novel—30 years before real-life women could land such jobs.

Artifacts of Peace

Humanity’s quest for peace and universal cultural respect is also represented here.  “When I despair,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi, “I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won.” Nelson Mandela, in a now-famous speech, urged his audience not to let fear get in the way of racial harmony and freedom.

The original pamphlet of Nelson Mandela's speech during the 1963 Rivonia trial in South Africa, reflecting the range of world heritage artifacts at the British Library.

After Mandela’s 1963 speech, he was sentenced to 27 more years in prison,
not to be released until 1990.

You can read their words in such primary resources as Gandhi’s letter to a South African newspaper in 1903 and a booklet of Mandela’s speech at his 1963 conspiracy trial. Mandela, who refused to testify in his own defense, instead expressed his ideals.

Sights Onsite

Here, too, are more than one million public-domain images, including maps to get lost in, art for finding creativity, and illustrations and photographs for traveling through time.

A lion-shaped historic map (1617), reflecting an artifact of cultural heritage available online at the British Library.

The British Library holds a vast collection of historic maps,
some of them meticulously “drawn within the lions.”

Travel to specific moments—like the day that T.S. Eliot wrote a rejection letter to an aspiring author:

A rejection letter by T.S. Eliot to George Orwell, reflecting England's literary and cultural heritage, as archived at the British Library.

In his 1944 rejection of George Orwell’s manuscript, T.S. Eliot suggested that what the novel
really needed was “more public-spirited pigs.”

Or, listen as a former drugstore employee recalls how she found a more fulfilling career.

Unlimited Discoveries

Still, you’ve only scratched the surface. From apps that put library collections on your cell phone to music that puts a smile on your face, the online universe of the British Library rewards exploration.

The one thing this resource of British and world cultural heritage cannot offer you is a proper cup of tea. For that, there’s simply no substitute for the piazza café known as—what else?—The Last Word.

A graphic treatment of "Finis" (The End), one of countless free images reflecting the world's cultural heritage and available online at the British Library website.

The end? Or just the beginning of
another online search?


Unless otherwise stated, all images in this article are in the public domain.

Tour British Museum highlights here. Explore the 1,023,705 images here.

See a totally hip video on “A Day in the Life of the British Library” here.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.



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