The British Library is a major research library, with items in many languages and in many formats, both print and digital: books, manuscripts, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound and music recordings, videos, play-scripts, patents, databases, maps, stamps, prints, drawings. The Library's collections include around 14 million books, along with substantial holdings of manuscripts and items dating as far back as 2000 BC. The library maintains a programme for content acquisition and adds some three million items each year occupying 9.6 kilometres (6 mi) of new shelf space.
The British Library was created on 1 July 1973 as a result of the British Library Act 1972. Prior to this, the national library was part of the British Museum, which provided the bulk of the holdings of the new library, alongside smaller organisations which were folded in (such as the National Central Library, the National Lending Library for Science and Technology and the British National Bibliography). In 1974 functions previously exercised by the Office for Scientific and Technical Information were taken over; in 1982 the India Office Library and Records and the HMSO Binderies became British Library responsibilities. In 1983, the Library absorbed the National Sound Archive, which holds many sound and video recordings, with over a million discs and thousands of tapes.
Initial plans for the British Library required demolition of an integral part of Bloomsbury – a seven-acre swathe of streets immediately in front of the Museum, so that the Library could be situated directly opposite. After a long and hard-fought campaign led by Dr George Wagner, this decision was overturned and the library was instead constructed by John Laing plc on a site at Euston Road next to St Pancras railway station.
Following the closure of the Round Reading Room on 25 October 1997 the library stock began to be moved into the St Pancras building. Before the end of that year the first of eleven new reading rooms had opened and the moving of stock was continuing. From 1997 to 2009 the main collection was housed in this single new building and the collection of British and overseas newspapers was housed at Colindale. In July 2008 the Library announced that it would be moving low-use items to a new storage facility in Boston Spa in Yorkshire and that it planned to close the newspaper library at Colindale, ahead of a later move to a similar facility on the same site. From January 2009 to April 2012 over 200 km of material was moved to the Additional Storage Building and is now delivered to British Library Reading Rooms in London on request by a daily shuttle service. Construction work on the Additional Storage Building was completed in 2013 and the newspaper library at Colindale closed on 8 November 2013. The collection has now been split between the St Pancras and Boston Spa sites. The British Library Document Supply Service (BLDSS) and the Library's Document Supply Collection is based on the same site in Boston Spa. Collections housed in Yorkshire, comprising low-use material and the newspaper and Document Supply collections, make up around 70% of the total material the library holds. The Library previously had a book storage depot in Woolwich, south-east London, which is no longer in use.
In the middle of the building is a six-storey glass tower inspired by a similar structure in the Beinecke Library, containing the King's Library with 65,000 printed volumes along with other pamphlets, manuscripts and maps collected by King George III between 1763 and 1820. In December 2009 a new storage building at Boston Spa was opened by Rosie Winterton. The new facility, costing £26 million, has a capacity for seven million items, stored in more than 140,000 bar-coded containers and which are retrieved by robots from the 162.7 miles of temperature and humidity-controlled storage space.
On Friday, 5 April 2013, the Library announced that it would begin saving all sites with the suffix .uk in a bid to preserve the nation's "digital memory" (which as of then amounted to about 4.8 million sites containing 1 billion web pages). The Library would make all the material publicly available to users by the end of 2013, and would ensure that, through technological advancements, all the material is preserved for future generations, despite the fluidity of the Internet.
The Euston Road building was Grade I listed on 1 August 2015. It has plans to open a third location in Leeds, potentially located in the Grade 1 listed Temple Works.
Interior of the British Library, with the smoked glass wall of the King's Library in the background.
Further, under the terms of Irish copyright law (most recently the Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000), the British Library is entitled to automatically receive a free copy of every book published in Ireland, alongside the National Library of Ireland, Trinity College Library in Dublin, the library of the University of Limerick, the library of Dublin City University and the libraries of the four constituent universities of the National University of Ireland. The Bodleian Library, Cambridge University Library, and the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales are also entitled to copies of material published in Ireland, but again must formally make requests.
The mechanical book handling system (MBHS) used to deliver requested books from stores to reading rooms.
Bronze sculpture. Bill Woodrow's 'Sitting on History' was purchased for the British Library by Carl Djerassi and Diane Middlebrook in 1997. Sitting on History, with its ball and chain, refers to the book as the captor of information which we cannot escape
The bust visible top left is Colin St. John Wilson RA by Celia Scott, 1998 a gift from the American Trust for the British Library. Sir Colin designed the British Library building
The Library is open to everyone who has a genuine need to use its collections. Anyone with a permanent address who wishes to carry out research can apply for a Reader Pass; they are required to provide proof of signature and address.
Historically, only those wishing to use specialised material unavailable in other public or academic libraries would be given a Reader Pass. The Library has been criticised for admitting numbers of undergraduate students, who have access to their own university libraries, to the reading rooms. The Library replied that it has always admitted undergraduates as long as they have a legitimate personal, work-related or academic research purpose.
The majority of catalogue entries can be found on Explore the British Library, the Library's main catalogue, which is based on Primo. Other collections have their own catalogues, such as western manuscripts. The large reading rooms offer hundreds of seats which are often filled with researchers, especially during the Easter and summer holidays.
British Library Reader Pass holders are also able to view the Document Supply Collection in the Reading Room at the Library's site in Boston Spa in Yorkshire as well as the hard-copy newspaper collection from 29 September 2014. Now that access is available to legal deposit collection material, it is necessary for visitors to register as a Reader to use the Boston Spa Reading Room.
Online, electronic and digital resources
Material available online
The British Library makes a number of images of items within its collections available online. Its Online Gallery gives access to 30,000 images from various medieval books, together with a handful of exhibition-style items in a proprietary format, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. This includes the facility to "turn the virtual pages" of a few documents, such as Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. Catalogue entries for many of the illuminated manuscript collections are available online, with selected images of pages or miniatures from a growing number of them, and there is a database of significant bookbindings.British Library Sounds provides free online access to over 60,000 sound recordings.
The British Library's commercial secure electronic delivery service was started in 2003 at a cost of £6 million. This offers more than 100 million items (including 280,000 journal titles, 50 million patents, 5 million reports, 476,000 US dissertations and 433,000 conference proceedings) for researchers and library patrons worldwide which were previously unavailable outside the Library because of copyright restrictions. In line with a government directive that the British Library must cover a percentage of its operating costs, a fee is charged to the user. However, this service is no longer profitable and has led to a series of restructures to try to prevent further losses.
When Google Books started, the British Library signed an agreement with Microsoft to digitise a number of books from the British Library for its Live Search Books project. This material was only available to readers in the US, and closed in May 2008. The scanned books are currently available via the British Library catalogue or Amazon.
In October 2010 the British Library launched its Management and business studies portal. This website is designed to allow digital access to management research reports, consulting reports, working papers and articles.
In November 2011, four million newspaper pages from the 18th and 19th centuries were made available online. The project will scan up to 40 million pages over the next 10 years. The archive is free to search, but there is a charge for accessing the pages themselves.
As of 2022, Explore the British Library is the latest iteration of the online catalogue. It contains nearly 57 million records and may be used to search, view and order items from the collections or search the contents of the Library's website. The Library's electronic collections include over 40,000 ejournals, 800 databases and other electronic resources. A number of these are available for remote access to registered St Pancras Reader Pass holders.
In 2012, the UK legal deposit libraries signed a memorandum of understanding to create a shared technical infrastructure implementing the Digital Library System developed by the British Library. The DLS was in anticipation of the Legal Deposit Libraries (Non-Print Works) Regulations 2013, an extension of the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 to include non-print electronic publications from 6 April 2013. Four storage nodes, located in London, Boston Spa, Aberystwyth, and Edinburgh, linked via a secure network in constant communication automatically replicate, self-check, and repair data. A complete crawl of every .uk domain (and other TLDs with UK based server GeoIP) has been added annually to the DLS since 2013, which also contains all of the Internet Archive's 1996–2013 .uk collection. The policy and system is based on that of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which has crawled (via IA until 2010) the .fr domain annually (62 TBs in 2015) since 2006.
In addition to the permanent exhibition, there are frequent thematic exhibitions which have covered maps, sacred texts, history of the English language, and law, including a celebration of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.
Services and departments
Business and IP Centre
In May 2005, the British Library received a grant of £1 million from the London Development Agency to change two of its reading rooms into the Business & IP Centre. The centre was opened in March 2006. It holds arguably the most comprehensive collection of business and intellectual property (IP) material in the United Kingdom and is the official library of the UK Intellectual Property Office.
The collection is divided up into four main information areas: market research, company information, trade directories, and journals. It is free of charge in hard copy and online via approximately 30 subscription databases. Registered readers can access the collection and the databases.
There are over 50 million patent specifications from 40 countries in a collection dating back to 1855. The collection also includes official gazettes on patents, trade marks and Registered Design; law reports and other material on litigation; and information on copyright. This is available in hard copy and via online databases.
In 2018, a Human Lending Library service was established in the Business & IP Centre, allowing social entrepreneurs to receive an hour's mentoring from a high-profile business professional. This service is run in partnership with Expert Impact.
Stephen Fear was the British Library's Entrepreneur in Residence and Ambassador from 2012 to 2016.
Document Supply Service
As part of its establishment in 1973, the British Library absorbed the National Lending Library for Science and Technology (NLL), based near Boston Spa in Yorkshire, which had been established in 1961. Before this, the site had housed a World War IIRoyal Ordnance Factory, ROF Thorp Arch, which closed in 1957. When the NLL became part of the British Library in 1973 it changed its name to the British Library Lending Division, in 1985 it was renamed as the British Library Document Supply Centre and is now known as the British Library Document Supply Service, often abbreviated as BLDSS.
BLDSS now holds 87.5 million items, including 296,000 international journal titles, 400,000 conference proceedings, 3 million monographs, 5 million official publications, and 500,000 UK and North American theses and dissertations. 12.5 million articles in the Document Supply Collection are held electronically and can be downloaded immediately.
The collection supports research and development in UK, overseas and international industry, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry. BLDSS also provides material to Higher Education institutions, students and staff and members of the public, who can order items through their Public Library or through the Library's BL Document Supply Service (BLDSS). The Document Supply Service also offers Find it For Me and Get it For Me services which assist researchers in accessing hard-to-find material.
In April 2013, BLDSS launched its new online ordering and tracking system, which enables customers to search available items, view detailed availability, pricing and delivery time information, place and track orders, and manage account preferences online.
Tape players used in the British Library Sound Archives, 2009 photo
The British Library Sound Archive holds more than a million discs and 185,000 tapes. The collections come from all over the world and cover the entire range of recorded sound, from music, drama and literature to oral history and wildlife sounds, stretching back over more than 100 years. The Sound Archive's online catalogue is updated daily.
It is possible to listen to recordings from the collection in selected Reading Rooms in the Library through their SoundServer and Listening and Viewing Service, which is based in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.
In 2006, the Library launched a new online resource, British Library Sounds, which makes 50,000 of the Sound Archive's recordings available online.
Moving image services
Launched in October 2012, the British Library's moving image services provide access to nearly a million sound and moving image items onsite, supported by data for over 20 million sound and moving image recordings. The three services, which for copyright reasons can only be accessed from terminals within the Reading Rooms at St Pancras or Boston Spa, are:
BBC Pilot/Redux: A collaboration with BBC Research & Development to mirror its archive which has, since June 2007, been recording 24/7 of all of the BBC's national and some regional broadcast output. BBC Pilot includes 2.2 million catalogue records and 225,000 playable programmes, but unlike BBC Redux it does not include any broadcasts beyond 2011.
Broadcast News: Since May 2010, the British Library has been making off-air recordings of daily TV and radio news broadcasts from seventeen channels, including BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky News, Al-Jazeera English, NHK World, CNN, France 24, Bloomberg, Russia Today and China's CCTV News. Many of the programs come with subtitles, which can be electronically searched, greatly enhancing the value of the collection as a research tool.
Television & Radio Index for Learning & Teaching (TRILT): Produced by the British Universities Film & Video Council (BUFVC), TRILT is a database of all UK television and radio broadcasts since 2001 (and selectively back to 1995). Its 16 million records, growing by a million per year, cover every channel, broadcast and repeat.
Periodicals and philatelic collections
Former British Library Newspapers building, Colindale
The Library holds an almost complete collection of British and Irish newspapers since 1840. This is partly because of the legal deposit legislation of 1869, which required newspapers to supply a copy of each edition of a newspaper to the library. London editions of national daily and Sunday newspapers are complete back to 1801. In total, the collection consists of 660,000 bound volumes and 370,000 reels of microfilm containing tens of millions of newspapers with 52,000 titles on 45 km (28 mi) of shelves. From earlier dates, the collections include the Thomason Tracts, comprising 7,200 seventeenth-century newspapers, and the Burney Collection, featuring nearly 1 million pages of newspapers from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The section also holds extensive collections of non-British newspapers, in numerous languages.
The Newspapers section was based in Colindale in North London until 2013, when the buildings, which were considered to provide inadequate storage conditions and to be beyond improvement, were closed and sold for redevelopment. The physical holdings are now divided between the sites at St Pancras (some high-use periodicals, and rare items such as the Thomason Tracts and Burney collections) and Boston Spa (the bulk of the collections, stored in a new purpose-built facility).
A significant and growing proportion of the collection is now made available to readers as surrogate facsimiles, either on microfilm, or, more recently, in digitised form. In 2010 a ten-year programme of digitisation of the newspaper archives with commercial partner DC Thomson subsidiary Brightsolid began, and the British Newspaper Archive was launched in November 2011. A dedicated newspaper reading room opened at St Pancras in April 2014, including facilities for consulting microfilmed and digital materials, and, where no surrogate exists, hard-copy material retrieved from Boston Spa.
An extensive display of material from the collections is on exhibit, which may be the best permanent display of diverse classic stamps and philatelic material in the world. Approximately 80,000 items on 6,000 sheets may be viewed in 1,000 display frames; 2,400 sheets are from the Tapling Collection. All other material, which covers the whole world, is available to students and researchers. As well as these collections, the library actively acquires literature on the subject. This makes the British Library one of the world's prime philatelic research centres. The Head Curator of the Philatelic Collections is Paul Skinner.
The British Library sponsors or co-sponsors many projects of national and international significance. These include:
Fragments of the Cotton Genesis, luxury illuminated manuscript copy of the Book of Genesis and one of the oldest illustrated biblical codices to survive to the modern period (4th to 5th centuries AD)
Leaf from the Codex Palatinus, Latin Gospel Book written on purple dyed vellum in gold and silver ink (5th century AD)
Maunggun gold plates, two gold strips found at Maunggun near Sri Ksetra, inscribed in the ancient Pyu script and among the earliest Buddhist texts discovered in Myanmar, donated by Sir Frederick Fryer, Lieutenant-Governor of Burma (5th century AD)
Préaux Gospels, luxury copy of the Four Gospels produced under the leadership of abbot Richard of Fourneaux, a student of Saint Anselm, at the Benedictine abbey of St Pierre in Préaux, Normandy (early 12th century)
Two first edition copies of the Magna Carta out of 4 extant copies (1215)
Rochester Bestiary, richly illuminated manuscript of a medieval bestiary, a book describing the appearance and habits of familiar and exotic animals, both real and legendary, Rochester, Kent (1220–1230)
Mahzor Vitry, liturgical manuscript written in Ashkenazic script, unique compendium of Jewish prayers for the entire year according to the north French rite and a host of laws on everyday practices (1242)
Late medieval manuscript copy of the Jónsbók, code of laws promulgated in Iceland by Jón Einarsson in 1280, at the instigation of King Magnus VI of Norway, from the collection of Sir Joseph Banks (15th century)
The Acts and Life of Saint Tekle Haymanot, profusely illustrated manuscript with the only known example of a metal cover with carvings of figures and the cross outside of Ethiopia (18th century AD)
Serat Selarasa, one of the earliest finely-illustrated Javanese manuscripts known, retelling the adventures of Selarasa, prince of Champa and his two brothers, originally owned by Colonel Colin Mackenzie (1804 AD)
Pageant of King Mindon manuscript, the finest example of Burmese manuscript art before it became influenced by Western artistic conventions, depicting the procession of King Mindon and his court to dedicate the Kyauk-daw-gyi Buddha image in Mandalay (1865)
The Additional Manuscripts series covers manuscripts that are not part of the named collections, and contains all other manuscripts donated, purchased or bequeathed to the Library since 1756. The numbering begins at 4101, as the series was initially regarded as a continuation of the collection of Sloane manuscripts, which are numbered 1 to 4100.
British Library employees undertake a wide variety of roles including curatorial, business and technology. Curatorial roles include or have included librarians, curators, digital preservationists, archivists and keepers. In 2001 the senior management team was established and consisted of Lynne Brindley (chief executive), Ian Millar (director of finance and corporate resources), Natalie Ceeney (director of operations and services), Jill Finney (director of strategic marketing and communications) and Clive Field (director of scholarship and collections). This was so the problems of a complex structure, a mega hybrid library, global brand and investment in digital preservation could be managed better
^The National Central Library, a tutorial system and a scholarly library for working people who were not connected to an academic institution, had been founded by Albert Mansbridge. "Mansbridge, Albert." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006.
^Chadwick, Gareth (5 June 2007). "The British Library: An excellent business support centre". The Independent. Archived from the original on 5 April 2008. The pilot was such a success that in May 2005 the London Development Agency, the Mayor of London's agency for business and jobs, announced a £1m funding package to turn the project into a permanent resource. The centre's facilities were enlarged and upgraded to include state-of-the-art meeting rooms, a networking area and wireless internet access. A team of information experts is on hand to help people find the information they need. The new centre re-launched in March 2006. In the 14 months since, it has welcomed more than 25,000 people through its doors.
^"Purchased by Eldridge Reeves Johnson, inventor of the Victor Talking Machine, the manuscript was exhibited at the Library of Congress from October 1929 to February 1930. After Johnson's death in 1945, the manuscript was purchased at auction by a group of Americans led by Lessing Rosenwald, A. S. W. Rosenbach and Librarian of Congress Luther Evans. On 13 Nov. 1948, Evans presented the manuscript to the British Museum as a gift to Great Britain from a group of anonymous Americans in gratitude for Britain's heroic efforts in holding Hitler at bay until the United States entered World War II."
Leapman, Michael (2012). The Book of the British Library. London: British Library. ISBN978-0712358378.
Ritchie, Berry (1997). The Good Builder: The John Laing Story. James & James.[ISBN missing]
Francis, Sir Frank, ed. (1971) Treasures of the British Museum. 360 pp. London: Thames & Hudson; ch. 6: manuscripts, by T. S, Patties; ch. 9: oriental printed books and manuscripts, by A. Gaur; ch. 12: printed books, by H. M. Nixon
Barker, Nicolas (1989) Treasures of the British Library; compiled by Nicolas Barker and the curatorial staff of the British Library. New York: Harry N. Abrams ISBN0-8109-1653-3