10 July 2023
Recording of the week: ‘Who goes down Euston Road?’ 50 years of British Library memories
Aerial view of the British Library, St Pancras. Photo by Sam Lane Photography.
This month, the British Library celebrates its 50th anniversary. Brought into being by the British Library Act 1972, the Library was established on the 1 July 1973.
Ten years later, the British Institute of Recorded Sound was incorporated into the Library, meaning this year also marks 40 years of the British Library Sound Archive.
The Library’s vast collections comprise upwards of 170 million items, ranging from books and manuscripts to music scores and sound recordings. Amongst the 6 million sound recordings held in the Library’s Sound Archive is an oral history interview with Sir Colin St John ‘Sandy’ Wilson, recorded in 1996 by National Life Stories for Architects’ Lives.
Together with his partner MJ Long, Wilson was tasked with designing a permanent home for the new British Library in the mid-1960s. The task would take more than three decades to complete; Wilson and Long battled government changes, funding cuts, design problems and soaring costs in what Wilson called his ’30-year war’ to build the Library’s St Pancras location as it stands today.
In this clip – taken from his 1996 interview – Wilson describes one of the many challenges they faced in the development of the building. He describes how the decision made in the mid-1980s to make St Pancras the point at which the Channel Tunnel would emerge in London fundamentally changed the status of the whole British Library building, and what that meant for the building design.
The British Library has no doubt seen its fair share of memorable moments in the years since the site opened in 1997, though whether Wilson’s fantasies of intercontinental romances playing out in the Piazza ever came true, we may never know.
You can read more about the challenges of designing the British Library in Niamh Dillon’s obituary blog to MJ Long. You can listen to both Colin St John Wilson and MJ Long’s full interviews online via British Library Sounds, and explore more about the architecture and design of the British Library.
What memories do you have of the British Library from the past 50 years? Share your stories with us on social media, @BritishLibrary on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.
This week’s selection comes from Madeline White, Curator of Oral History.