Monday, February 7, 2011

British Library

Last week I went on a trip to the British Library, both to be a tourist and to do some research.  It's a bit of a long story, but I'm submitting a paper to be published, and I needed some information to complete my references.  Lucky for me my topic - Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb - is pertinent to the British cultural heritage, and they had the book I needed at the British Library, so off I went!

I took the train from our station, Tooting, to St. Pancras International, crossing the Thames on the way.  There are, of course, a huge number of people toting weekend bags and suitcases around St. Pancras, because it is the hub of the Eurostar rail service to the continent.

Endless line of "black cabs" eager to pick up passengers.

The Library is right by the station, and I made my way in.  I had pre-registered for a Reader Card, and had to find the registration office to complete the process.  Then, I had to lock my bag in a locker and bring only a notebook and pencil in a clear-plastic bag into one of the designated reading rooms, where my book was waiting.  The reading rooms are beautiful and spacious, and the one I was in - Humanities I - was quite full of people.  I found what I needed (yay!) and spent the rest of the time exploring the library.

My research methodologies course during my master's degree had extolled the virtues of the special collections of the British Library, and there was no exaggeration.  I spent some time in their display room, where a number of their more famous items are on display.  These include manuscripts by Jane Austin and Emily Bronte, the manuscript of Handel's Messiah as well as the libretto from the premiere performance, other manuscripts by Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, and Holst, Mozart's actual marriage certificate, the piece of paper where Paul McCartney first scribbled the lyrics to "Yesterday,"  a complete copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America... oh, and the Gutenberg Bible.  The British Library actually owns two (!) of these; the paper copy is on display, but they have another put away, on vellum.  

I was interested to learn (warning: Intro to Grad Studies moment) that Gutenberg's original Bibles were printed with the plain text only and sold as unbound sheets.  The owner would then have someone fill in the initial characters and florid illustrations, red rubrics, and illuminations (if they were SUPER rich.  Of course if you're buying a book in the first place you're probably super rich).  The paper copy of the Bible they have on display is believed to have been illustrated in Erfurt, so the style of illustration and colours will reflect that time and place.  Provenance, anybody?  Very interesting.  To me, anyway.  End of Intro to Grad Studies moment.

It was almost too much to see so many amazing, famous manuscripts all at once - you can't really take it in!  I had to stand there in front of the Handel manuscript and tell myself over and over, "this is Handel's actual manuscript.  He wrote on this piece of paper.  Himself.  When he was composing Messiah."  I'm going to have to go back and stare at them for a while longer!

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