British Library: behind the scenes

 I spent an afternoon visiting behind the scenes at the British Library at St Pancras recently.
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The British Library was established under  the British Library Act 1972 as the National Library of the United Kingdom, it receives funding from the Department of Media, Culture & Sport and generates some of its own income. The building was opened by the Queen in 1998.
 I had visited last year to obtain my reader pass and attended an introductory workshop and one on Music resources. It’s useful to be able to advise staff and researchers wishing to join about the policies and procedures and facilities.  Reader Registration staff like Librarians and usually give them 3 year reader’s pass which is the longest one.
One thing I didn’t realise was that (on Camden Council’s request) open space had to be provided so the piazza in front of the BL is the roof of the basement storage. There are 4 levels equivalent to an 8 storey building.  I also didn’t realise that the building was never completed. It was very over budget and only phase one was ever built. I also overheard a conversation that if there was ever a flood there is an agreement with local supermarkets that their freezers can be used to dry out the books. ( I feel  that overhearing conversations is generally part of my detective skill set which derives from reading much crime fiction).   I visited the Humanities reading rooms, had a tour of some of the basements and the newsroom. There are 11 reading rooms  There are 2 humanities reading rooms.  Humanities is one of the bigger reading rooms.
11001908_10205425824138927_8041241375469633112_n[1]The basements were interesting. Access to them is restricted and even staff can’t access all of them. There is a ticket machine which prints out orders from  readers indicating the shelfmark, basement area and bay and they are collected by staff. The staff work in a ‘Section room’ . There is a book transport system but the item collection is not automated like at Boston Spa. There are a mixture of rolling and automated stacks. The basements have security features and in a fire there are shutters that descend and also a sprinkler system in place. There is an automatic crate conveyor system with red crates, automatically routed to the correct destination anywhere in the building by a bar code and scanner system, where they were loaded onto trolleys for onward dispatch. You can see some pictures of the basement here: http://www.subbrit.org.uk/sb-sites/sites/b/british_library/index.shtml There is a very large  shrink wrapping machine to shrink wrap items for Boston Spa but this isn’t working yet.
The newsroom on level 2 was opened recently because of the closure of the Newspaper library at Colindale. The Newspaper Programme cost £33million, and is a 7 year programme, due to end this year. The new News Reading Room was part of the programme and cost about £150KMost of the money has been spent on the high tech Newspaper Storage Building in Boston Spa and the lorries who are moving the collection to that building, along with the digitalization of the large parts of the collection. This building has started to be demolished and will be turned into flats.  There are 40 digital microfilm viewers, 7.8m scanned pages of historic newspapers and more than 40,000 TV and radio news programmes, increasing at a rate of 60 hours every day across 22 news channels. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/28/britishlibrary-33m-pound-newspaper-reading-room  newsroom has huge pc screens that are multipurpose and also microfilm readers. Approx 60% of the newspaper collections are on  microforms. The newsroom has a blog: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/thenewsroom/  I was struck by the size of some of the huge newspapers and the extremely large and heavy bound volumes that people request. Massive red boxes transport even just one or two items to and from Boston Spa. (I’m thinking working on transport to Boston Spa, you must need to be quite strong).
10391417_10205414595378215_8724276427043968011_n[1]524202_10205414596178235_8749553620955995031_n[1]Protecting the nation’s books and heritage definitely seems to be a high priority and there are a lot of restrictions for the reading rooms and some of the exhibitions and  even accompanied visitors are only supposed to take in pencils rather than evil pens.
The website www.bl.uk is currently being redesigned and a new website is due to appear sometime in March.
 I’m very grateful to Claire (for organising),  Lina (Humanities Reference Team) and Stewart (Newsroom) for the behind the scenes exclusive.
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About Diane Bell

I'm a Research Librarian at City, University of London. I am interested in delivering services, collections and designing and delivering training to research students and staff in particular. My interests include information and digital literacy, writing articles and conference presentations and research-based practice.

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