On my first visit to London, I just missed seeing the Magna Carta and other precious historical, literary, and religious works. They’d been removed from their home in a wing of the British Museum, but weren’t yet on display at the New British Library. With one thing and another, I missed the NBL on subsequent visits, but was determined to get there this time.
Although the architecture of the building is relatively modern, its brick-covered exterior blends well with the heavily-ornamented St. Pancras train station standing nearby. Tall iron gates funnel visitors off Euston Road into a large plaza that leads to a conference center and the library itself. Entering the library building, you step into an expansive marble lobby that rises six floors. In the center, some of the library’s stacks can be seen through glass walls. To your left is a bookshop, which offers a variety of books, videos and posters. Up a few steps from the shop is the entrance to the The John Ritblatt Gallery, where Treasures of the British Library is the permanent exhibition. The treasures on display here might more properly be termed "Treasures of World."
The Magna Carta is, after all, not just the document that brought a degree of democracy to Britain, but established a framework of shared government powers in use in many countries today. Religious works on display include not just the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels and copies of both the Guttenberg and St. James bibles, but the Golden Haggadah, a 15th-century Sephardic depiction of the Passover story, ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts, and fragments of Coptic and Ethiopian Christian manuscripts.
The worlds of literature and music are covered in the Ritblatt gallery, as well. Jane Austen’s writing desk, a handwritten draft of a Bronte novel, and the only document known to be in William Shakespeare’s hand can be seen. Hymn books from monasteries and two works related to Handel’s Messiah, a libretto from its premiere performance, and a score marked in the composer’s hand, are displayed. One of my favorites: a quartet laid out in "table" form. Each of the four parts is written in a different direction on a single sheet of paper. The sheet was laid on a table around which the musicians would sit, each able to read his own part easily.
From the gallery exit, you can go down a flight of stairs to see special exhibitions and a room containing early printing and bookbinding equipment.
A café and restaurant are located at the back of the lobby, behind the glass column. Over 1,000 cases containing stamps from all over the world are located in the walls in this area.
Access to the Ritblatt Gallery and most special exhibitions is free. Guided tours are available for a fee. Information on the tours, and on reaching the library via public transportation is here. Opening hours are: weekdays, 09:30 to 18:00, until 20:00 on Tuesday; Saturday, 09:30 to 17:00 and Sunday and British public holidays, 11:00 to 17:00.