Sunday, July 10, 2011

British Library

On Thursday afternoon we visited the British Library.  Our tour was led by Kevin, one of the managers of the front of house team.  The Library is the national library of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  It has three areas of interest: 

  1. Acquisitions-they are required by law to obtain a copy of every item published in Britain within a month of its publication.  They are also required to keep the copy forever and keep it accessible to patrons.
  2. The Library also commissions research in Library and Information Science, and provides leadership in the field. 
  3. The Library also needs to compile and maintain the national catalogue.
There are four men who are considered to be founders of the British Library.  Sir Robert Cotton graduated from Cambridge at the age of 22 in 1510.  During the Dissolution of the Monasteries he bought up whole library collections.  In 1771 his collections were moved to the Ashburton House.  90% of his collection was moved over to the British Museum.  Sir Hans Sloane was a scholar, traveler, and philanthropist.  When he died he left his library to the nation.  In 1753 the Montigue House opened to make the items accessible.  Over the years the House and collections developed into the British Museum.  Kevin stressed the importance of knowing that the British Museum grew out of a book collection; the books came before the artifacts. 

The present building was completed in 1997 as an attempt to house the vast collection of the Library.  Beneath the floor of the courtyard is where the on-site books are stored.  There are four floors of shelving, in the largest subterranean tower block in the world.  The first level is plans and machinery, to regulate the temperature and humidity.  Then the four floors of shelving come next.  The bottom level contains the water management system and a 6 foot tank to drain any excess water into the Thames.  The Piccadilly Line actually runs through the lowest level of shelving.  The Tube sounds echo through all the levels. 
view of the main lobby from third floor
There are approximately 35 million books on the shelves.  Everything is sorted shelved by size.  Due to the vast amount of books and the archival nature of the library; they need to conserve as much space as possible.  Each book is designated by a shelf mark, not a catalog number.  The four floors are each divided in to quadrants, to ease the assistant’s jobs in retrieving items.  There are three other buildings in London which also house large amounts of books.  About 40% of the Library’s collection is here in London; the rest is in off site storage in Yorkshire.  The total Library collection contains between 180-185 million titles.  The whole collection would cover roughly 8-900 linear miles of shelving.  They receive roughly 8,000 new books each day and are struggling to store it all.  Each year they add about 3 million items and 8 miles of shelving to house the new books.

In 1951 the British Municipal Authorities suggested separating the artifacts from the books.  Colin St John Wilson was commissioned to draw up designs for a new building.  Originally the commission wanted the Library to be located directly across the street from the Museum, but they would have been forced to destroy many historic houses and surrounding areas.  In 1973 the land was purchased, and Wilson had to redesign the plans to make the Library look like St. Pancras.  In 1980 the foundation was laid.  The overall design is like that of a ship.  Wilson was a navy officer during WWII but he never commanded a ship.  All throughout the Library there are naval themes.  36 years after the project began the Library was finally opened.  The project costs had doubled, and the end result was half the expected product.  19 organizations came together under one roof when the Library opened.  By 2015 the Library hopes to be able to shut down the other three London branches and send the majority of the books to Yorkshire.

Kevin then explained and showed us the process of applying for a Reader’s card.  The Library has 114,000 registered readers.  He then showed us part of the automated retrieval system and the ride that a book takes from the underground stacks up to a reading room.  Four electronic systems have to work together to get the books up to the readers; if one of them goes offline then the Library will be shut down.  1.25 miles of track are in operation and there are thousands of possible routes to the reading rooms.  All of the bins contain barcodes which are read along the route, and the system will re-route for faster travel or to avoid a traffic jam.  It takes a book about 20 minutes to travel from the basement up to the right reading room.  Most books travel in this manner, only the rarest items will be carried up by hand (like a Shakespeare First Folio), and only if the reader can give strong enough of reasons for needing to see the original. 

We got to go behind the scenes and see how the retrieval system works, and we got to get a glimpse of the humanities reading room.  We did not, however, go down to the basement and see the stacks.  We did get to see the largest book in the collection, the Klencke Atlas.  The glass tower in the lobby contains the personal collection of King George III.  He loved books and reading and had a collection of 67,000 books.  They were originally housed in the Museum, but were moved to the Library.  He wanted the books to be seen and used by the public.  The tower contains 6 floors and all the books are in the integrated catalog.  About 30 books are used each day by Readers.
view of part of King George's Library in the glass tower
The Library is in the process of digitizing about 400,000 rare and out of print items in an attempt to increase worldwide access.  No one knows quite how to answer the questions raised by digitization but the Library is attempting to utilize new technologies.  As more and more books are being published in both print and e-formats, or only e-formats all Librarians and Information Science Professionals on both sides of the pond need to work together to establish protocols and principles.

The British Library is the third largest library in the world.  The Library of Congress and the National Library of Russia are both larger.  However, in terms of collections the British Library is the richest and most varied in the world.  It has a huge foreign language collection, and has 180 language curators, each of whom is multi-lingual.  Around 35% of the Library’s users are international Readers.  As our tour came to an end we all thanked Kevin.  He then left us in the Treasure’s Room where we wandered around and looked at many rare items. 

Key websites: main site
integrated catalogue:

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