Find out how the King’s Library presented the ultimate opportunity for architects to show off the treasures of the British Library.
The immediate focal point for all visitors arriving in the building is the King’s Library, which houses the books collected by King George III (reigned 1760–1820).
Made of gleaming glass and bronze, and with shelves full of leather and vellum bindings, it has been described as the ‘precious casket’ holding the British Library’s ‘Jewel in the Crown’.
George IV’s insisted that his father’s collection should be displayed ‘entire, and separate from the rest of the Library… in a repository to be appropriated exclusively for that purpose’. This presented architect Sir Colin St. John Wilson with an exciting opportunity to show off the riches of the Library…
With millions of treasures stored under your feet, the six-storey ‘tower of knowledge’ appears to soar up from the basements, creating a bridge from the ‘underworld’ to the public areas of the Library. The items tucked away in storage are almost ‘bursting out’ from the depths of the earth.
This effect can be seen best if you peer down at the polished black granite around the base of the tower from the Upper Ground Floor. If you stare at the reflections in it for long enough, you might get the illusion that the tower is plunging right down into the basements.
Listen to Colin Wilson explaining his architectural choices for the King’s Library in this interview extract. You can also hear the full interview with him, recorded as part of National Life Stories' Architects' Lives oral history programme.
Library or Catalogue Hall?
In the original architectural plans, a Catalogue Hall – not the King’s Library you see today – would have stood as the centrepiece of the Library.
The Hall would have housed paper catalogues which Readers could browse through to order their books. But as the world went digital, so did our catalogue, and Wilson and his team were forced to change their plans.
If someone read one book a day from the King’s Library, how long would it take them to read the whole collection? Scroll through the image carousel above to find out.