Shelving the past;Subject of the week

29th May 1998 at 01:00
The British Library project used to be a byword for extravagance and delay. But the opening of the new site on London's Euston Road has revealed a treasure trove for students and teachers, reports Elaine Saunders .

It's the largest building venture of the 20th century; it cost pound;511 million, three times the original estimate; it took 36 years from its conception in 1961 to its opening last November; and it has attracted more controversy than perhaps any other British construction project of recent times.

But inside any reservations about the architecture disappear; the concourse exudes an aura of calm, purposeful activity. A vast expanse of stone floors and white walls, soaring pillars and high ceilings gives an impression of uncluttered space, flooded with daylight; a water feature, a colourful tapestry (the largest woven in Britain this century) and a statue of Shakespeare all contribute to the sense of airy graciousness.

From the concourse it is easy to see the entrances to the main areas - the public galleries, bookshop, reading rooms, cafe and restaurant - and there's plenty of seating.

The exhibition areas are a striking combination of old and new. The John Ritbalt Gallery is the place to see the greatest treasures. Dimly lit and softly carpeted, its elegant black and white design focuses attention on the glass cases containing such gems as the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Gutenberg Bible.

In the neighbouring Pearson Gallery of Living Words, the story of writing is illustrated not only by early books but by television screens playing videos and computer touch-screen displays set into padded benches so you can sit in comfort and call up images and information.

The area devoted to the history of children's books houses a reading corner, and the haunting sound of Gregorian chanting accompanies displays of illuminated manuscripts. In stark contrast, next to these ancient texts stands a computer terminal offering an Internet connection to the Financial Times's news service. Other areas, such as the workshop of words, sound and images, house bright and cheerful displays of technology old and new, which invite hands-on experimentation.

Here there is a 15th-century scribe's studio, where you can learn the art of illumination; an exhibition of various types of writing materials and a replica of an 18th-century printing press. More modern equipment, such as the desktop publishing suite, encourages children to learn about present-day typography.

The move to the flagship building has also meant new opportunities for the library's education service, which opened in April and is already proving a big success - its workshops are fully booked until the end of term. Karen Brookfield, one of three members of the education team, is delighted with the facilities for school parties. Not only is there a dedicated education room, a lunch area, parking for minibuses - all impossible in the cramped Bloomsbury site - but there are also more workshops and seminars.

Curators and freelance specialists are using the unrivalled collection of manuscripts and printed books for sessions on subjects such as bookbinding and calligraphy for key stage 2 and 3 pupils, and, in talks for sixth-formers on writers such as Joyce, Hardy and Dickens, the original scripts can be discussed and dissected.

The National Sound Archive offers a variety of opportunities for students to look at music and the history of the recording industry. For example, the curator of the popular music section is available to give talks to media studies students.

As Karen Brookfield says: "The library is not only about keeping ancient books, although this is obviously an important function. We acquire new things all the time, so we have the most up-to-date material as well. And we aim to be in the forefront of developments in new technology."

Computers are in evidence throughout the building, from the online public access catalogues in the reading rooms and galleries to the display screens that give information on forthcoming events. They are also used for behind-the-scenes applications such as the automated ordering system.

On the day I visited, a party of 15 and 16-year-old boys was being shown round by education staff. The hands-on-activities in the dedicated science area proved the biggest attraction (watching a machine convert your voice into sound waves is strangely compulsive), but they were also visibly impressed by the quality of their surroundings. "Like a hotel," said one. And a first-class one at that.

The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB. Education service, tel: 0171 412 7797 Email: Web address:

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