The British Library is… big.
No. Let’s rephrase that. It’s not just “big”… it’s… really big. Bigger than your imagination.
Even in a digital age, where terabytes of information are stored on air-conditioned servers, the British Library adds new physical documents at the rate of three million documents a year; necessitating an additional shelf space of 9.6 square kilometers.
Although it might seem ridiculously recent, in terms of Great Britain’s history of empire, that the Library was only actually sanctioned, in 1972 (most British librarians will know, until then, it had been part of the British Museum, before becoming a distinct offshoot); it, and five other libraries in Britain (and Ireland), are entitled to receive free copies of every item published or distributed in Britain.
However, in addition, there’s still all of those earlier mounds of visual material to sift through, accumulated over the decades; and even though the idea of viewing over a million images probably isn’t for the faint-hearted; then the prospect of at least dipping into one of the greatest archives in the world should be of interest to both casual and professional historians and scholars.
The British Library recently made available these million images via flickr; and it’s a deliciously daunting tsunami of disparate images.
It is, literally, the world, as once collected: and even a ten-minute ‘hike’ through this treasure trove will show the limits of your own perceived world.
Some of the reproductions will definitely only be of interest to a niche, specialized, audience (if you’ve never been a fan of 1899 mine drainage valves, then now’s the time to become acquainted with a second edition of industrial brass engineering), but many of the images are a lot more accessible and fascinating—and have been tagged by an army of volunteers who have catalogued them, from books that the library has digitized, since 2013. Thereafter, the images have been posted to flickr by the library’s Mechanical Curator: a ‘bot’ that randomly picks and posts images.
What is perhaps most amazing (if not surprising) is how this walk down memory lane illustrates the changing nature of empire. By its nature, the British Library is a collector of material; not an editorialist; so, there is plenty of material likely to seem anachronistic (at best), or quaint, now that the sun has faded on the British Empire. We can see old colonial images that represented a certainty about one’s place in the world (“Buffalo Bill, The Buckskin King”); tourist images of idyllic Scottish landscapes; scientific drawings of plants from offshoot colonies.
But, contemporary historical perspective aside, what perhaps best typifies this collection is the sheer wonder of life, in all its volume and diversity. From children’s diagrams, to comprehensive mechanical letter collections; from vintage Christmas depictions, through to army maps that delineate the strategies of critical battles: from the illustrations of science-fiction books (“The Angel of the Revolution depicts a (very) pre-CGI airship battle that looks no less thrilling than a James Cameron multiplex-fest) through to ethnographic collections; from cycling, and ships, and boats, and trains and…
… well. You get the idea, Take a tour. And if you forget any of it, come back in a year. After another 9.6 square kilometers of shelf space has been filled…
Download l Licensing images here: https://forms.bl.uk/imaging/index.aspx?referrer=flickrcommons