King’s books on show at British Library

If the architects of the British Library in London, England were aiming for grandeur and impressiveness in their design of the 1998 national library building, they definitely succeeded.

Especially striking is the six-storey King’s Library in the middle of the atrium. The free-standing glass tower contains 65,000 books and 19,000 pamphlets collected by King George III during his reign from 1760 to 1820 and houses one of the most significant collections of printed material of that time period. The books are sealed behind environmentally-controlled glass to safeguard the condition of the rare volumes, but are available for study on request.

Most research libraries hide their valuable historical collections away behind closed doors, with access restricted to credentialed scholars. The fact that we can see these books at all is thanks to the King’s son, George IV, who donated the collection to the nation and stipulated that “its beautiful leather and vellum bindings should be on show to the general public and not just to the scholars.”

The King’s Library pays homage to an 18th-century monarch’s collecting addiction, but the visual volumes also give the interior space of the modern building a much appreciated bookish ambiance and reminder of the historical pre-eminence of the printed word.