The British Library

History of the British Library

The British Library is, as national libraries go, relatively young. Its roots lie in the report of the National Libraries Committee under the Chairmanship of the late Lord Dainton issued in 1969. This was followed in 1971 by a White Paper recommending the setting up of a national library for the UK ('the British Library').


In 1972 The British Library Act was passed by Parliament, bringing the Library into operation with effect from 1 July 1973.


Under the Act the following institutions were administratively combined to form the British Library: the library departments of the British Museum (which included the National Reference Library of Science and Invention), the National Central Library, and the National Lending Library for Science and Technology (the centre for interlibrary lending, located at Boston Spa in Yorkshire). In 1974 the British National Bibliography and the Office for Scientific and Technical Information joined the UK's new national library.


Two additional institutions subsequently became part of the Library increasing the breadth of its collections: the India Office Library and Records (1982) and the British Institute of Recorded Sound (1983).


Constituent parts

Library of the British Museum

To the library community and the public at large, the best known component of the new national library consisted of the library departments of the British Museum. The Museum's Department of Printed Books was founded in 1753, the year of the foundation of the Museum itself. Over the intervening two hundred years, the library of the British Museum had grown into one of the largest in the world, sustained by its privilege of legal deposit whereby it was entitled to a copy of most items printed in the United Kingdom - not only books and periodicals, but newspapers, maps and printed music. In addition, the Museum's comprehensive holdings of non-legal deposit items had reportedly earned it the accolade from Lenin of possessing (in the 1900s) a more comprehensive collection of Russian books than libraries in Moscow and St Petersburg.


Lenin was one of those privileged to use the Museum's spectacular domed reading room. Designed in the 1850s at the instigation of Sir Anthony Panizzi, then Chief Librarian, the reading room and surrounding bookstacks were constructed in the courtyard of the British Museum providing its library with impressive premises in the heart of what was already an overcrowded building. The Reading Room had been thrown open to all for a short period at the time of its opening in May 1857, thereafter admission was by pass only, giving access to its collections an aura of selectivity and exclusiveness. In addition to Lenin (who used the pseudonym Jacob Richter), the roll call of those holding reader passes included Karl Marx, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf.

British Museum Library photo The British Library Reading Room inside the British Museum, Bloomsbury, before the move of the British Library to its current location at St.Pancras.

Patent Office Library (from 1962 National Library of Science and Invention)

Another constituent part of the British Library was the library of the Patent Office. Its origins lay in the Patent Law Amendment Act of 1851 which required "true copies of all specifications to be open to the inspection of the public at the office of the commissioners", the Patent Office library itself opened in 1855. For the remainder of the nineteenth century this was housed in cramped accommodation and it was not until 1902 that purpose built premises were opened in Southampton Buildings off Chancery Lane - an impressive 'Galleria' style structure by the architect Sir John Taylor. As with the Museum's library, despite new premises, the Patent Office collections soon suffered severe shortage of space.


The Second World War highlighted the need for a comprehensive scientific and technological network in the UK, specifically for a national library of science and technology. In the late 1940s and 50s there was considerable debate among the Scientific Community whether the collections of the libraries of the British Museum or the Patent Office should serve as the nucleus of this: the position was resolved in 1959 when a Working Party on the issue recommended that the proposed library should be based on the collections of both libraries and put under the control of the Museum Trustees. The National Reference Library of Science and Invention (as it was called) was set up in 1962, administratively as part of the British Museum library.

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National Central Library

The National Central Library was founded in 1916 as the Central Library for Students. It was financed out of grants from the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, and its primary purpose was to lend books to adult class students who had no other sources for borrowing. In 1927 the Kenyon Committee on Public Libraries envisaged the library developing as the central clearing-house of an inter-library network embracing all the nation's resources, and it suggested that this development should take place under the aegis of the British Museum. However, the Royal Commission on National Museums and Galleries subsequently recommended that the Library should have independent status.


These several recommendations led in 1931 to the Library's incorporation of the Royal Charter as the National Central Library, which was to be the official clearing-house for inter-library lending. It was to provide a bibliographic service as well as continuing its original role in servicing adult classes.


In 1966 the NCL moved to a new building in Store Street near the British Museum Library.


National Lending Library for Science and Technology

The third major component of the British Library consisted of the National Central Library or NCL which began operation in 1916 in London and the National Lending Library for Science and Technology (NLLST), in service since 1961 at Boston Spa in Yorkshire. These were amalgamated in 1973 as the British Library Lending Division (BLLD).


The function of the Lending Division was to support the library systems of the UK by providing a loan and photocopy service to other libraries throughout the country.


The NLLST had a stock specialising in science and technology, containing 25,000 monographs and subscriptions to 1,200 serials; its staff numbered 120. Around 600 tons of the NCL stock, which specialised in humanities and social sciences, was transferred to Yorkshire during the Library's first year of formation. The semi-rural site at Boston Spa occupies around 60 acres of an ex-munitions factory and is well served by road links for easy distribution.


During the 1970s the range of services was expanded and made available to international customers and use of technology became a more integral part of the service. The use of Automated Requesting grew by about 40% in this time and the Lending Division often acted in collaboration with academic and scientific partners in early days of exploring the future of fax transmission and satellite communications.


In 1985, the title was changed to the British Library Document Supply Centre to reflect the changing emphasis of document supply in which a greater proportion of requests were for copies of articles rather than loans. The stock has grown over the years and now contains over 260,000 journal titles, over 3 million books, almost 500,000 conference proceedings and almost 5 million reports, mostly of a scientific nature.


Current business from document supply totals about 4,000,000 requests per year from 20,000 customers worldwide. In 2001 the 100 millionth request was received. Services are now provided not just to the traditional customer base of UK and international librarians and information professionals, but also to commercial and business users and individual researchers. Use of the Web has provided direct access to our collection information and supply services, and location is no longer an issue for distribution, as document supply moves increasingly to electronic delivery.

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Other constituent organisations

Two institutions became part of the British Library in 1974: the British National Bibliography (BNB) and the Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI).


Starting in 1950, BNB had been a run as a commercial company and its functions had been to produce and publish a weekly listing of all British publications and to develop a computer based system for storing and handling bibliographic information for the use of libraries and the book trade. OSTI was transferred from the Department of Education and Science to become the Library's Research and Development Department (in 1999 the functions of this were transferred from the British Library to the Library and Information Commission, now the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.


In 1982 the India Office Library and Records were transferred to the British Library from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: these contained the entire archives of British India from the foundation of the East India Company in 1600 to independence. The following year (1983) the Library took over the British Institute of Recorded Sound, a unique institution which specialised in collecting sound recordings. Subsequently renamed the Sound Archive, this is now one of the largest sound archives in the world.


The British Library at St Pancras

The 1971 White Paper recognised that the constituent bodies of the proposed British Library (principally the British Museum Library) were seriously short of space and that rehousing the collections was a priority. However, legislation setting up the British Library made no reference to this nor to the geographical location of the new institution.


Shortage of storage space for the collections was not new. As early as the 1910s it was clear that the Museum's library was suffering from a lack of space as the ceaseless intake of books, periodicals and other materials continued without interruption. (By this time newspapers had been transferred from Bloomsbury to premises originally outside London, now the British Library Newspapers at Colindale. The Museum building and collections sustained a number of direct hits by German bombers in the early 1940s which caused some of the original bookstacks to be rebuilt after 1945. By now lack of space was a major problem, and solution to this - leasing storage space in the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich in the early 1960s - was a short-term expedient. In the 1960s the Museum considered extending its library premises in Bloomsbury, abandoned in 1967.


The initial plan at the time of the Library's formation was that lending activities would be concentrated at Boston Spa, and reference, research, and bibliographic services would be united and rehoused in a second complex, adjacent to the British Museum in London. The Library's first annual report for 1973-74 stated "A new building on the Bloomsbury site is the British Library's most urgent need".


Colin St John Wilson, an architect who had previously worked on the 1960s scheme for extending the library of the British Museum, produced a plan for a new building adjacent to the Museum. However, in 1974, in response to local opposition to a building of that size being constructed in an historic area of central London, the Government abandoned the idea of housing the Library in Bloomsbury. The nearest vacant site to the environs of the Museum (where much of the Library's large collection of books and other material was kept) capable of housing so many items, staff and services was a derelict goods yard immediately to the west of St. Pancras station.


The history of the Library's new building is described in The British Library and the St Pancras Building by Sir Anthony Kenny, Chairman of the British Library Board, 1993-1996. An outline follows:


In December 1974 the Library's Board agreed to examine with the Government the feasibility of siting a building on this site fronting on to Euston Road; the following year the Government paid £6 million for this to be the site of the new British Library.


By the end of 1977 an elaborate scheme had been prepared by Colin St John Wilson for the Library's new home.


The site was bounded to the south by Euston Road, the east by Midland Road, the north by Brill Place and Ossulston Street to the west. The shape of the site was angular which the architect emphasised in the public areas linking the two wings containing reading areas. The plan of the building resembled something akin to an inverted letter A, in technical terms a rhomboid, being shortest to the south (Euston Road) with sides tapering outward towards the longer end approaching Brill Place in the direction of Camden Town.


At the southern apex on Euston Road, the reader would cross an open Piazza to enter public areas including an exhibition hall, and find on the eastern side a block of open-access science Reading Rooms with rooms for lectures and seminars, and on the western side a block of closed-access humanities and rare books rooms. Books were to be stored underneath the building in a temperature controlled environment. A catalogue hall, subsequently changed to the Kings Library (Library of King George III), and public facilities including restaurants were to occupy the cross-piece of the A. The Library hoped that the completed building would enable it to unite all its London reference collections under one roof and would provide room for future growth of the collections.


As might be expected of such a large construction project, the British Library building became the victim of delays and rising costs. In 1988 the Conservative government then in power indicated that it would provide enough funding for a building approximately two thirds the size of the original plan.


The British Library was formally opened by HM The Queen in June 1998. Since then it has become firmly established as a major addition to London's library, intellectual and cultural scene.

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