Report on Serendipity Group Meeting - Tour of the British Library, Tuesday, 30 April 2019

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Having been split into two small groups our tour of the British Library started in the Digital Preservation Room, where they are fighting a constant battle against obsolescence because of rapidly changing technology. There were several old computers on display around the room. We then moved on to the area where book requests are sorted, with a paternoster moving the books to the required floor.

Boston Spa is the home of the UK national newspaper collection, which comprises more than three centuries of local, regional and national newspapers. A copy of every newspaper is stored,  and the dailies, weekly and monthly publications are piled up until a reasonable number is reached; they are then boxed and stored. One copy of everything has to be deposited within a month of publication; they even have copies of local history group magazines. Ancient manuscripts are all stored in London and can only be viewed there.

Currently 550 people work at the Boston Spa site, down from over 1000 in the 1990s. As more of the buildings become more automated, fewer employees are needed. Those with children can make use of the play scheme during school holidays.

Some paper copies are posted out each day, but most of the material requested nowadays is sent in an email attachment. Universities each have their own pigeonhole, and books and photocopies are sent out via courrier each night. The Library staff sort everything by postcode before 5pm to make it easier for distribution from Stourton.

Under the Legal Deposit scheme the Library receives a copy of every book, magazine, journal and newspaper published in the UK. Since April 2013 legal deposit also covers material published digitally and online. Until six years ago books sent out were recorded manually and then put back on shelves once returned. This system led to delays. Now a bar code system is in operation; as soon as a book returns to the library, it can be immediately sent out to the next person.

The Digitisation North studio based at Boston Spa (Digitisation South is near St Pancras in London) started in 2009 when microfilm thesis service was replaced by EThOS. (E-Theses Online Service). It is used by universities to digitise PhD theses (127 are currently using the Library's services). It was thought at first that they would deal with perhaps 100 theses per week, but the figure was actually 100 per day, and to date half a million theses have been digitised. The studio now manages almost any digitisation job for commercial or individual customers, from one-off premium digital images, to projects numbering hundreds of thousands of images.

Publishing houses also request digitised copies of their journals; they often find themselves with not enough storage space for hard copies. The NHS has its staff newsletters digitised at the Library. The Royal Society of Cambridge recently sent them a box of 16th century books for digitisation, which needed careful handling.

The Library was recently awarded a grant to digitise African and Asian book collections; half was done in London and half in Boston Spa. The different writing systems often made it difficult for staff to know which way round to copy the books. The material is now available worldwide. They were also given a collection of glass lantern slides recently showing First World War images, which have now all been digitised. It is also possible to scan and store images of war medals and helmets. The Europeana website stores 58,318,521 artworks, artefacts, books, films and music from European museums, galleries, libraries and archives:

The British Library uses live scan with Zeutschel machines from Germany, usually at 300 pixels per inch, although it is possible to double this figure. Images are usually stored as TIF files, as these can be manipulated easily, although do require a lot of storage space. Theses are saved as black & white documents, but old newspaper copies are saved in colour, which needs more space. Modern newspapers are done in grayscale.

The British Library covers a huge area and part of it is still housed in wartime ammunitions buildings. There used to be a railway station on site, with a miniature train connecting the different buildings.

We were taken next into the Additional Storage Building (also known as Building 31), opened on January 23rd 2015, which was purpose-built to provide the ideal environmental conditions in which to store up to 11 million low use publications. They are stored in high-density racking 20 metres high; collection items are retrieved by robotic cranes and transferred via an airlock to a retrieval area where staff can remove requested items and send them to any of the 11 British Library reading rooms at St Pancras or the on-site Reading Room at Boston Spa.


The second high density automated storage building contains the National Newspaper collection and items are retrieved by robotic cranes in a similar way to the Additional Storage Building and can be sent to either the British Library Newsroom at St Pancras or the on-site Reading Room at Boston Spa. 535 lorries carried more than 280,000 bound volumes of newspapers from Colindale to Boston Spa, with the moves finally being completed in November 2014.

The building houses around 33km of publications at a constant temperature and humidity in a dark and airtight, low-oxygen environment to eliminate the risk of fire. It is possible to strike a match inside, but a fire would not break out. Even an oxyacetylene flame would only manage to singe a sheet of paper. The only danger would come from a terrorism attack. Normal oxygen levels are 21, a transatlantic flight would be 17, but when we visited this building it was only 14.9, enough for most people to survive for several hours. It is more likely to be the 55-step climb to reach the viewing platform which will see most people off. They did install a goods lift, but this cannot be used by visitors. It was felt that a passenger lift was not required, as the small number people who work in there need to be reasonably fit anyway.

It was designed to have enough storage space to last 14 years, but it is already at 80% capacity. When it is full a second building will have to be constructed. Most large first world countries have a system for storing all its publications, but the Additional Storage Building at Boston Spa is the only one of its kind in terms of size and specifications; people come from all over the world to view it.

The last area we visited was the Current Monograph store where recently purchased books are stored. Monographs (ie. books on a specialist subject, often written by a single author) are stored first according to year of print, then by order of acquisition. Anyone wishing to find a book here first needs to consult a catalogue to find its number (eg. M15/10356).  Serial publications are stored strictly alphabetically, ignoring words like: the-and-of. Boston Spa administers the Public Lending Rights, which pays every author a small sum each time their book is borrowed; this can be passed on in the author's will.

It was a fascinating tour, revealing a far more comprehensive service to the public than I'd imagined. Next time we can perhaps take up their offer to reserve a table in the onsite staff restaurant; a coffee was certainly overdue after nearly two hours on our feet. Unfortunately there was no shop at the end of the tour, unlike most of the museums we visit, but I may purchase one of these bookmarks from their online shop (

              'Never judge a book by its movie' - J. W. Eagan



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