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British Library

British Library main building, London
British Library main building, London

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries, holding over 150 million items and adding some 3 million every year. As of March 2004 the library holds 11.2 million monographs and receives more than 41,500 serials.


Historical background

As an institution The British Library is surprisingly young compared to equivalent institutions in other countries, having been created in 1973 by 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 various smaller organisations which were folded in (such as the British National Bibliography).

For many years its collections were dispersed in various buildings around central London, in places such as Bloomsbury (right next to the British Museum), Chancery Lane, and Holborn. Since 1997, however, the main collection has been housed in a single new building in Euston Road near to St. Pancras and Kings Cross which was designed specially for the purpose by the architect Colin St. John Wilson . It is the largest public building constructed in the United Kingdom in the 20th century. However, newspapers are still held at Colindale and there is also a collection at a site at Boston Spa in Yorkshire.

At the heart of the building is a three story 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.

Access to the collections

A number of important works are on display to the general public in a gallery called "Treasures of the British Library" which is open to the public seven days a week at no charge. There is an additional exhibition concerned with practical matters connected with the library's collection, such as printing and early sound recording. The library also stages temporary exhibitions on a wide range of subjects which can be illuminated by the items in its collection - which is almost anything, not just literature. There is a charge for these temporary exhibitions.

Other items can be accessed in the reading rooms. In the past the library emphasised its role as a "library of last resort" for people who needed access to deep and specialised collections which they couldn't find anywhere else. Nowadays it adopts a more welcoming approach and emphasises on its website that any one who wishes to carry out research is likely to be granted a reader's pass, providing they provide the necessary identification for security purposes.

Legal deposit

An Act of Parliament in 1911 established the principle of the Legal Deposit, ensuring that the British Library, along with five other libraries in Britain and Ireland, is entitled to receive a free copy of every item published in Britain and The Republic of Ireland. The other five libraries are: the Bodleian Library at Oxford; the University Library at Cambridge; Trinity College Library in Dublin; and the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales. The British Library is the only one that is entitled to receive a copy of everything within one month of publication; the other five have to wait for up to one year.

In 2003, a Private Member's Bill, the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 , was passed which extended the Legal Deposit requirements to electronic documents such as CD ROMs and selected websites.

See here , from the British Library's website, for more information about legal deposit.

Miscellaneous information

The library also holds the Oriental and India Office Collections (OIOC), which contain the collections of the India Office Library and Records , and materials in the languages of Asia and of north and north-east Africa.

The British Library participates in a project called 'Bibliotheca Universalis' which aims at publishing major works on the web. In the British Library's Digital library project collections can be toured online and the virtual pages of Leonardo's notebooks and other great works can be turned electronically. The British Library's secure electronic delivery service started in 2003 at a cost of $6 million brings access to more than one hundred 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.

The use of the library's web catalogue also continues to increase. In 2003 more than 9.7 million searches were conducted.

Highlights of the collections

See also

External links

  • The British Library homepage
  • The King's Library contained within The British Library
  • The 'Bibliotheca Universalis' homepage
  • The World's Earliest Dated Printed Book
  • Turning the Pages , digitizations of a few important books, with explanations (Macromedia Shockwave format)
  • The British Library Act, 1972

Last updated: 01-28-2005 02:49:50
Last updated: 02-04-2005 15:26:24