British Library Adds Impressive, New Chapter to History of the UK

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LONDON - Much of the fun on a visit to the British capital these days is comparing the hip with the staid: new and old aspects of an ever-changing city whose roots go back nearly two millenniums.

Perhaps nowhere at present is the feeling better expressed than in the controversial British Library opposite the venerable Victorian St. Pancras railway station.

The building, the largest public structure put up in the United Kingdom this century, is itself a work of art that enhances the art of research work many times over. The controversy arose over its design, a strikingly modern red brick construction occupying two sides of an immense square block in north London.

The design by Colin St. John Wilson reflects the new cool side of Britannia, while its many valuable collections represent more than a touch of the old. The cost was more than $1 billion, which, a library official points out, is the equivalent of a half-year's profits made by British Gas.

Traditionalists, such as Prince Charles, initially were aghast at the concept, but since its opening last year critics have softened their charges. The library has become a popular attraction, offering a variety of activities that go well beyond its basic purpose.

Only scholars, however, can go inside the hallowed reading rooms, now completely computerized. Visitors who do not qualify for access to perform scholarly labors are advised to sign up months ahead for tours that are given several times a week. So popular has the place become that one may have to spend a year on the waiting list, according to library spokesman Bart Smith.

The exterior is a spare modern L-shape structure, somewhat Oriental in feel - like the imperial palace in Beijing - blending amazingly well with the turrets and gingerbread of its St. Pancras neighbor. It faces an enormous piazza, complete with campanile, where, on the day I visited, a monk sat in rapt concentration talking on a mobile phone.

The open space was necessary since regional authorities required that the library not block the view of residents in a 1920s-era public housing project facing the library on one side.

The so-called King's Library, the 65,000-volume collection of George III given to the nation by his son George IV in 1823, is the central attraction inside, a master stroke by Mr. St. John Wilson, giving symbolic and structural weight to his plan. The library within a library is housed in an impressive six-story bronzed, glass-walled tower viewed immediately behind the entrance hall. The cafe in front of this spectacular area is open to the public.

In a timely sign of Britain's new global outlook, American white oak - said to last 250 years - is used throughout, as is white travertine from Italy.

The national library of the United Kingdom, established 250 years ago, is pointedly a research institution touted as containing material "in all known written languages." It is not a public reference library. Applicants, who are interviewed beforehand on site, must prove they have absolute need to be there. …