Of all the great English architectural tragedies of the last century, the greatest by far must be the British Library. It may be in use, but it is far from being the established British institution it was intended to be. Designed by Colin St John Wilson, the library stands on and dives beneath what was a Victorian goods yard adjoining London's St Pancras Station. It was, when completed in 1867, the largest clear-spanning structure in the world. Wilson's library is an equally massive structure. The visible parts of it are clad in red brick and roofed in grey slate to match Gilbert Scott's adjoining hotel. Viewed from the west, the two buildings combine in a visual montage that cunningly makes use of the elaborate decorative elements of the hotel to soften the stark outline of the library.But vast as it is, and clever, Wilson's library is not a success, largely because nowadays neither architectural design nor popularity is the yardstick by which libraries are judged.
The building's brief called for twice as much accommodation for readers than there was in the old British Museum reading room - a dome larger than St Peter's in Rome - together with expansion space to absorb new acquisitions until 2010. But when it finally opened, only the vast entrance hall remained from the old design. If it had not been for the library's remote book store in Yorkshire, which held millions more books and provided reader photocopying services - 90 per cent of the British Library's business - there is little doubt that a public inquiry would have been held into the project and someone blamed for its shortcomings.
From the beginning the British Library showed how futile it is to apply art historical preconceptions to the processing of knowledge in the electronic age. When books were expensive and permanent - the undisputed building blocks of knowledge - it made sense to store them in large buildings where readers could consult the maximum number without endless travel and inconvenience. Exactly this line of reasoning led to the boom in the financial services dealing rooms of the 1980s, because the cost of IT made it most efficient to crowd hundreds of computer terminals into buildings that were no more than great stacks of aircraft carrier-sized floor plates where dealers, like readers in a reading room, congregated together.
Now, in the world of the reader as well as the dealer, that age has passed, and with it the whole justification for the treatment of a library as a monumental public building. Today, books have ceased to be authentic objects of pilgrimage. Instead they have become containers of information like rolls of film, CDs or video cassettes. Unlocking the information they contain still means reading, but not necessarily reading the 'original'. The contents of books can be photocopied, digitised, recorded and disseminated in an almost unlimited number of ways. So much so that it is now much easier to transmit the contents of books to readers than to accommodate several thousand readers in one place and bring the books to them.
Innovation in information technology never ceases. In 1997 it might have been considered rocket science to stop photocopying and instead start digitising ancient books and modern publications. But by 2002, what was once a trickle has become a torrent of desk-top published books, online magazines and websites capable of overwhelming all organs of record. The Internet may already boast more than one billion pages, but the average website lasts only a few weeks.After that it is lost without trace. 'Spam' most Internet ephemera may be, but cease to store everything and the whole concept of a library of record as a vast and monumental building goes as well.