Celebrating books in the British Library

On Tuesday evening I decided to pop over to the Conference Centre to have a peek at the event being chaired by Sue MacGregor (who used to be a stalwart of the BBC radio Today programme).

The title of the event was ‘A source of inspiration’: conversations with British Library readers, and is a part of the programme to celebrate ten years since the St Pancras building first opened.

And what an impressive line up of readers the panel was:

The eminent historian Dr David Starkey, who spoke of his work as the Guest Curator of the Library’s forthcoming exhibition on Henry VIII opening next April.

Professor Martin Kemp spoke of using technology to make items understandable, citing examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s work, and challenging the audience to consider that digitisation should be about “digital exposition, not just digital storage.”

The award-winning architect M J Long was also on the panel. She has particularly close links with the Library; her firm Long and Kentish designed the Centre for Conservation, and with her husband, the late Sir Colin St John Wilson, was joint architect of the Library’s St Pancras building. It was interesting to hear her talk about how they imagined people studying in the variety of spaces they created, and to see how this had been successful in reality. Also the reward for using expensive, quality materials, wood and marble, which were standing the test of time well. I have to agree with her assessment. After ten years of heavy use, most of the building still appears new or nearly new. Even the heavy oak and leather chairs have plenty of life left in them after supporting thousands derrières.

Last, but by no means last – as far as I was concerned, was Tim Campbell, winner of The Apprentice television programme. He explained how the Business & IP Centre has provided him with crucial information for setting up The Bright Ideas Trust, a social initiative to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs. He described the Library as a “a hidden gem”, and his own desire to publicise the business resources to young people who might not otherwise come in.


The evening ended with a heated debate between David and Tim about increasing access to the British Library. David was worried about damage to the unique items in the collection through over use. Tim wanted to see more people benefiting from making use of our content.

All parties agreed that although increasing access to rare material through digitisation was a good thing, it was not a substitute for the need for subject experts to explain and educate readers.


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