British Library

From Academic Kids

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

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and is the world's largest research library, 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

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The main entrance gate was designed by Lida and David Kindersley.

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.

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Interior of the British Library, with the smoked glass wall of the King's Library in the background.

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 anyone who wishes to carry out research is likely to be granted a reader's pass, providing they provide the necessary identification for security purposes. The Library has come under criticism for admitting undergraduate students to the Reading Rooms, but the Library says that they have always admitted undergraduates as long as they have a legitimate personal, work-related or academic research purpose.

According to the website, more than half a million people use the Library's reading rooms every year. The huge reading rooms cover thousands of seats which are filled with researchers every day. According to the May 2005 Readers' Bulletin, usage of the Reading Rooms has gone up significantly in the last month or so - 2005 room usage has been the highest it's been for quite a few years. This is putting pressure on services including difficulty for readers to use the cloakroom and locker facilities.

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.


The British Library Newspapers section has a similar structure to the main library but runs itself largely independently. The Library has a more or less complete collection of British and Irish newspapers since 1840, owing in part to legal deposit legislation of 1869 mandating that the library receive a copy of each edition of a newspaper. 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 45km of shelves.

Collection of particular interest are the Thomason Tracts containing 7,200 seventeenth century newspapers and the Burney Collection featuring newspaper from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The section also has extensive records of non-British Isles newspapers in Roman and Cyrillic alphabets. The collection is less substantive for Middle-Eastern and Oriental alphabets, though some holdings of these are held at the main library in St. Pancras.

British Library Newspapers is open to the public and is located in Colindale in North London.

Miscellaneous information

The library also holds the Oriental and India Office Collections (OIOC), Now called APAC (Asia, Pacific & Africa Collections) 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

Philatelic collections

The British Library Philatelic Collections are the National Philatelic Collections of the United Kingdom. The Collections were established in 1891 with the donation of the Tapling Collection, they steadily developed and now comprise over twenty five 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' 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 exhibition and is probably 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 by appointment.

As well as these extensive collections, the subject literature is very actively acquired, and make the British Library one of the world's prime philatelic research centres.


See also

External links

ja:大英図書館 sv:British Library zh:大英图书馆


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