Jun 23

Inspiration: The British Library 

I love libraries. All writers should. Hell, everyone should. One of the first jobs I had was working in the school library and one of my first “real” jobs was working in my local library. Sadly I don’t work in the British Library (yet) but on the 11th May 2019 I officially became a member.

I’ve wanted to discuss the British Library, in the same vein I wrote about the British Museum (see that old post here) for some time but I needed a reason. After I became a member and attended the Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition I thought now would be the ideal time.

The British Library

The British Library is famous for having the biggest book collection in the world. At time of writing there are over two million items in its catalogue and according to the tour guide, at least one copy of every book printed in the United Kingdom is stored in the library. Aside from novels, the British library also collects patents, stamps, maps, music, manuscripts, journals and sound recordings as well as the UK’s web domain. Any website created in the UK is stored in the British Library, they currently have sixty eight terabytes of web data which is over two billion web pages!

I want to briefly talk about the British Library’s sound recordings. Although we ask ourselves what the past looked like, we rarely ask ourselves what the past sounded like. The other week I had the pleasure of listening to an extract of an interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which he discussed the paranormal. Although everything Doyle said was wrong and he came across as a conceited jerk, I was surprised at how beautiful his voice was. It was gravelly and yet jovel. I wish I could have him read me an audio book or use his voice for Siri.

Although the British Library was first established in 1973 it has only been in its current site in St Pancras for twenty one years. Before this, The British Library was part of the British Museum and all of its items were part of the Museum’s collection. I’m not sure how the item were divided between the two institutes as any item that enters the British Museum’s collection is legally not allowed to leave (again see my British Museum post about the Elgin Marbles) but the St Pancras site was built especially for the library and was the biggest building constructed during the 20th century. It goes eight floors underground and is almost as impenetrable as Fort Knox (although one of the lowest vaults is apparently only eight meters away from the Victoria line.)

The library’s collection includes King Henry’s VIII’s love letters to Anne Boleyn,  handwritten lyrics by the Beatles and a copy of William Shakespeare’s first folio. Perhaps the most notable collection is The King’s Library a six floor high glass tower that holds donations, dated between 1400’s – 1800’s, from King George III. When I spoke to a staff member they explained that because there were fears that the original Magna Carta would be stolen in transit, it was deployed in a Mini Cooper along the streets of London with two more decoy mini coopers. If you think that this story is ridiculas I wouldn’t blame you but stranger things have happened. In the 1990’s a RAF Harriet Jet had to make an emergency landing in the library’s carpark!

Magna Carta.jpg

Making your mark

There’s no clear answer as to when the human race first started writing. Historians are divided on the subject as many different civilisations started writing at different points in time all over the globe. The Sumer of Mesopotamia, (modern day Iraq) are a strong contender with being the first writers in history along with the Ancient Egyptians using their hieroglyphs.

As the need for writing became more widespread across the globe, many different forms and systems of writing developed. These systems would vary depending upon the language itself and the culture they were created in. For example, Ancient Chinese characters were written phonetically and Anglo Saxon manuscripts were written left to right with the next line right to left. Some written languages are so niche that few people know them such as Braille and Leonardo Da Vinci’s own mirror language in which you would have to read his notes through a mirror to understand them.

I want to briefly touch upon Calligraphy, the art of handwriting. Although calligraphy is a real thing (and I could certainly benefit from taking a few lessons) there is also talk of understanding someone’s personality through their handwriting. This trope can most promidently be seen in crime shows and despite claims that Aristotle started this practice and it being reported in thousands of magazines there isn’t a shred of evidence for it. The police don’t use it in their investigations and the only thing you can establish from someone’s handwriting is how good their pen and paper are.

Languages are born and languages die. Take Latin for example, during the height of the Roman Empire most of the population of Europe spoke Latin. In the modern day, very few people can say more than a few phrases in the dead language.  The Cornish language is going in the same direction, you could argue that the Cornish language is little more than a secret code known by a select few. In contrast to this, English is currently the second most spoken language in the world after Mandarin Chinese and is expected to become the world’s most promenade language in fifty years time. (English itself is a mixture of several other languages including Old Norse, Old English, French and Latin. You can read more by clicking here.) The popularity of English is mostly due to the British Empire invading various countries and injecting English into difficult cultures.

If I had to make a guess at to what would happen to language in one hundred years time I would say two things. First, there there will be a universal language, similar to the common tongue in Tolkin’s Middle Earth, that everybody could speak. My second guess would be that we would have developed technology such as the babel-fish in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy that translate other languages for us.

There were fears of the written word disappearing when the Kindle was first launched and with the emergence of emojis, people have despaired for our written language. I attended a talk by Martin Puchner who discussed his latest book, The Written Word and speculated on the future of writing. He agreed that we are at the cusp of a significant change in how we write. However we won’t be downloading books into our brains with super kindles just yet and we are not reverting back to hieroglyphs. While there may be a significant change approaching, it won’t take place for a couple of hundreds of years yet. By the time these changes take place we shall all be dead. So, no need to worry.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little ramble. Take care and see you next time.

1 comment

  1. Fascinating interview with Doyle. Thank you for posting. What a kind person.

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