What Is the British Library?

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  • Written By: Rebecca Cartwright
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2019
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The British Library is the national legal library of deposit for the United Kingdom. As such it receives a copy of every item published in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Open to the public, the library was first authorized by the government in 1972 but did not open in its present building until 1997. The library building stands next to the St. Pancras rail station in central London, with specialized branches in Boston Spa, and Colindale.

Sir Colin St. John Wilson was architect for the building. Under his direction, the building was completed with a low profile to avoid obscuring the view of St. Pancras Station. The library building also was built from the same brick as the station so the colors of the two buildings harmonize.

As the largest building completed in the country in the 20th century, the British Library has over 133,950 sq yards (about 112,000 sq m) of floor space. Of the 14 floors, five are underground with the lowest almost 75 feet (about 23 m) below the surface. An underground controlled environment storage center is expected to quadruple the life of items stored there.

In addition to printed books, newspapers and magazines, the library holds vast collections of written manuscripts, art work, and musical scores and papers. Holdings also include philatelic, or postage stamp related items, and sound recordings. Maps, patents and specialized journals make up other collections; altogether the British Library holds over 150 million items.


Specific items of interest in the British Library range from a Gutenberg Bible, among the earliest printed books in Europe, to handwritten music manuscripts by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The library holds a wealth of historically significant items including Shakespeare's First Folio, a copy of the very first edition of the Times of London. Non-printed materials include Chinese oracle bones now over 3,000 years old, and some of the first maps made in Europe.

Before the institution of the current British Library as the national library of deposit, the British Museum served that role. To form the new national library the holdings of the museum were merged with those of the National Central Library and the National Lending Library. Collections were also added from Other institutions such as the National Bibliography, the Office for Science and Technical Information, and the India Office Library. In 1983 the collections of the British Institute of Recorded Sound also became part of the holdings of the current library.


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