British Library in London

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The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom, and is the world's largest library in terms of total number of items. The library is a major research library, holding over 150 million items from every country in the world, in virtually all known 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 (second only to the USA's Library of Congress), along with substantial holdings of manuscripts and historical items dating back as far as 2000 BC.

As a legal deposit library, the British Library receives copies of all books produced in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, including a significant proportion of overseas titles distributed in the UK. It also has a programme for content acquisitions. The British Library adds some three million items every year occupying 11 km of new shelf space.

The library is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It is located on the north side of Euston Road in St Pancras, London (between Euston railway station and St Pancras railway station) and has a document storage centre and reading room at Boston Spa, Wetherby in West Yorkshire.

The library was originally a department of the British Museum and from the mid-19th century occupied the famous circular British Museum Reading Room. It became legally separate in 1973, and by 1997 had moved into its new purpose-built building at St Pancras, London.

Historical background

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). These include the books and manuscripts of Sir Robert Cotton, Sir Hans Sloane, Robert Harley and King George III.

For many years its collections were dispersed in various buildings around central London, in places such as Bloomsbury (within the British Museum), Chancery Lane, and Holborn, with an interlibrary lending centre at Boston Spa, Wetherby in West Yorkshire (situated on Thorp Arch Trading Estate) and the newspaper library at Colindale, north-west London.

In the middle of the building is a four-storey glass tower 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 Thorp Arch, City of Leeds, West Yorkshire 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, which are retrieved by robots, from the 262 kilometres of temperature and humidity-controlled storage space.

Legal deposit

In England, legal deposit can be traced back to at least 1610. An Act of Parliament in 1911 established the principle of the legal deposit, ensuring that the British Library and five other libraries in Great Britain and Ireland are entitled to receive a free copy of every item published in Britain. The other five libraries are: the Bodleian Library at Oxford; the University Library at Cambridge; the Trinity College Library at Dublin; and the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales. The British Library is the only one that must automatically receive a copy of every item published in Britain; the others are entitled to these items, but must specifically request them from the publisher after learning that they have been or are about to be published, a task done centrally by the Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries.

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 the Republic of Ireland, alongside the National Library of Ireland, the Trinity College Library at 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.

In 2003 the Ipswich MP Chris Mole introduced a Private Member's Bill which became the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003. The Act extends United Kingdom legal deposit requirements to electronic documents, such as CD-ROMs and selected websites.

The Library also holds the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections (APAC) which include the India Office Records and materials in the languages of Asia and of north and north-east Africa.

Using the library's reading rooms

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 for security purposes.

Historically, only those wishing to use specialised material unavailable in other public or academic libraries would be given a Reader Pass. Recently, 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 the British Library Integrated Catalogue, which is based on Aleph, a commercial Integrated library system. 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.

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.

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 due to 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 pages of newspaper from the 18th and 19th Centuries have been 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.


A number of books and manuscripts are on display to the general public in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery which is open seven days a week at no charge. Some of the items in the exhibition include Beowulf, a Gutenberg Bible, Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (King Arthur), Captain Cook's journal, Jane Austen's History of England, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Under Ground, Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby, Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and a room devoted solely to Magna Carta.

In addition to the permanent exhibition, there are frequent thematic exhibitions which has covered maps, sacred texts and now the history of the English language.

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.

Staff are trained to guide small and medium enterprises (SME) and entrepreneurs to use the full range of resources. 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 also 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 Archival Sound Recordings which makes over 10,000 hours of the Sound Archive's recordings available online for UK higher and further education and the general public.


The British Library Newspapers section is based in Colindale in North London. The Library has 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 of shelves. In May 2010 a ten year programme of digitisation of the newspaper archives with commercial partner DC Thomson subsidiary brightsolid.

Among the collections are the Thomason Tracts, containing 7,200 17th century newspapers, and the Burney Collection, featuring newspapers from the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. The Thomason Tracts and Burney collections are held at St Pancras, and are available in digital facsimile.

The section also has extensive records of non-British newspapers in languages that use the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. The Library's substantial holdings of newspapers in the languages of Asia and the Middle East may be accessed at the Library's reading rooms at St. Pancras.

Philatelic Collections

The British Library Philatelic Collections are held at St. Pancras. The Collections were established in 1891 with the donation of the Tapling collection, they steadily developed and now comprise over 25 major collections and a number of smaller ones, encompassing a wide-range of disciplines. The collections include postage and revenue stamps, postal stationery, essays, proofs, covers and entries, "cinderella stamp" material, specimen issues, airmails, some postal history materials, official and private posts, etc., for almost all countries and periods.

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.<ref name=pocket/>

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 David Beech.<ref name=pocket/>

Highlights of the collections

Highlights selected by the British Library include:

  • The Diamond Sutra, the world's earliest dated printed book printed in 868 during the Tang Dynasty
  • The Codex Sinaiticus The major portion of the world's second oldest manuscript of the Bible in koine Greek (4th century) and a priceless treasure.
  • The Codex Alexandrinus
  • The Lindisfarne Gospels
  • The St Cuthbert Gospel, with the oldest Western binding, currently on long-term and in 2011 the subject of an appeal to purchase.
  • Two Gutenberg Bibles
  • Two 1215 copies of Magna Carta
  • The sole surviving manuscript copy of the poem Beowulf
  • The Codex Arundel, one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks.
  • William Tyndale's 1534 English translation New Testament, the personal copy of Anne Boleyn.
  • Manuscript of Alice's Adventures Under Ground by Lewis Carroll (given to the British Library by a consortium of American bibliophiles "in recognition of Britain's courage in facing Hitler before America came into the war")

Collections of manuscripts

  • Arundel collection
  • Cotton Library
  • Harleian Collection
  • King's Library

There are also "Additional Manuscripts" series, which covers manuscripts that are not part of the named collections, and contains all manuscripts gifted, purchased or bequested to the Library since 1756.

Transport connections

Service Station/Stop Lines/Routes served
London Buses British Library 10, 30, 59, 73, 91, 205, 390, 476,
N73, N91
London Underground King's Cross St. Pancras

London Overground Euston Watford DC Line
National Rail King's Cross East Coast, First Capital Connect,
First Hull Trains, Grand Central
St Pancras East Midland Trains, Eurostar,
First Capital Connect, Southeastern

See also

  • Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries
  • British Library of Political and Economic Science
  • British literature
  • British Museum Reading Room
  • DataCite
  • Friends of the British Library
  • Incunabula Short Title Catalogue
  • International Dunhuang Project
  • Lawrence Durrell Collection
  • National Archives
  • National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program
  • National Library of Scotland
  • National Library of Wales
  • National Preservation Office
  • National Sound Archive
  • Theatre Archive Project
  • Social Networking and UK Libraries


Further reading

  • Alan Day: Inside the British Library. Library Association, London 1998,
  • Philip Howard: The British Library, a treasure of knowledge. Scala, London 2008,
  • Colin St John Wilson: The design and construction of the British Library. British Library, London 1998,

External links