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Collection Development Policy

The collection of the British Library embraces virtually all known languages. It traces its formal history to the foundation of the British Museum Library in 1753.

The quality, size and depth of the Library's collection (estimated at more than 150 million items) are central to its position as the UK's national library.

While no library can aspire to being comprehensive in its coverage of the world, the British Library collects widely and in depth in its areas of traditional strength. The purpose of these pages is to give clear statements of the current collecting policy. It is intended that these statements will assist users to understand what they can expect to find in our collections.

Increasingly the Library works in collaboration with other institutions to make material available to researchers. As a result, these collection development policy statements are living documents that will develop as co-operative agreements are put in place which focus the collecting efforts of the British Library.

Purpose of the British Library Collection

The collection of the British Library operates on many levels and with reference to the rest of the library system in the country. At the core it represents the collective memory of the nation by retaining for posterity the intellectual output of British publishing. To assist in this legal deposit legislation ensures that the Library is entitled to a copy of all books, journals and newspapers published in Britain. To this core is added purchased research-level material from around the world and appropriate unpublished material in different formats.

Our collecting policies reflect our function as a library of first instance and last resort; last resort for those whose primary access is their university, company or public library and first instance where the Library is the sole convenient source for the research material they require.

The collection is available in Reading Rooms to those who need the resources of a large research library, bringing together research-level material from across the globe. (See the reader registration pages for admissions criteria). Increasingly, the reference materials that have only been available in Reading Rooms will be made available in digital form for direct access via the Internet.

The collection also supports scientific enquiry and research both in Reading Rooms and by being available either for loan or for copying and delivery to the researcher via the Library's interlending and document supply services.

Legal deposit

The British Library is one of the six legal deposit libraries of Great Britain and Ireland. The other five are the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales, the libraries of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin.

In recognition of the deposit in Trinity College, Dublin, the British Library receives deposit of material published in Ireland.

The Library aims to become a major world centre for the storage of digital texts required for research and scholarship. Interim arrangements for the voluntary deposit of electronic material have existed since January 2000 and are governed by the Code of practice for the voluntary deposit of non-print publications.

Purchased material

The Library commits significant sums of money each year for the purchase of material in addition to material received through legal deposit. The overall figure is available in the latest Annual Report. It is supplemented, where possible, by raising additional money, special appeals and donations.

Purchase falls into three broad categories of material regardless of format:

a) current foreign language material, and English language material published abroad, of research-level interest

b) material that fills gaps in the historical record across all subjects, formats and periods

c) duplicate legal deposit material for the purposes of loan and document supply

See below for links to specific policies.

Donations and permanent loan

The Library is always happy to consider donations and, in exceptional circumstances, the long-term loan of material. Such material can make a significant contribution to the collection and ease pressure on the acquisitions budgets. Acceptance of items will always be in accordance with the overall collection development policy of the Library and preference will always be given to taking items into the collection permanently.

It is not usual to accept duplicates of items already in the collections.

Ethical future acquisitions policy

The Ethical Future Acquisitions Policy is the British Library's public statement in plain English of its ethical position in respect of future acquisitions of material of cultural or heritage value. The policy is available for you to download and view in PDF format.

Borrowing items for public exhibition

Under the terms of the 1972 British Library Act, the British Library Board may

"subject to such restrictions and conditions as they think necessary to safeguard their collections, lend any item, and make any part of their collections, or of their premises, available in connection with events of an educational, literary or cultural nature".

Please see our lending criteria.


While it is sometimes necessary to buy duplicates, for reasons of providing an efficient service and to enable the Library to provide a loan and document supply service, it is not Library policy to retain duplicates of modern books once the service-reason for their acquisition has passed.

Retention and disposal

The Library exists to preserve the national printed archive of the country together with supporting purchased and donated material. It therefore does not normally dispose of material in its collections and never disposes of items from the collection accepted under legal deposit. Disposal is governed by the British Library Act and by the policy of the British Library Board.

Working in collaboration

The Library is currently in discussion with a number of libraries to explore whether better value for money can be achieved through explicit collection policies that define more clearly what each institution is buying. The intention of the discussion is to make the best possible provision for researchers.

The Library is also supporting the deliberations of the Research Support Libraries Group (RSLG), chaired by Professor Sir Brian Follett, which is taking a national view of research provision.

Formal co-operative agreements currently exist with:

  • The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
  • The Natural History Museum
  • The Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, School of Advanced Studies
  • London School of Economics

Specific collection development policies

Specific collection development policies exist for various areas of collecting, under the general direction of the above policies. The specific policies can be read from the links in the right-hand panel. They relate to the following collections:

  • British and Irish
  • Asian and African Studies
  • Dutch
  • French
  • German
  • Greek (modern)
  • Hispanic
  • Italian
  • Scandinavian
  • East European
  • Manuscripts
  • Music
  • Patents
  • Philatelic
  • Science, Technology & Business
  • Early Printed
  • Maps
  • Newspapers
  • Sound Archive
  • Web Archiving

Many of the collections are available for loan or document delivery through the Library's Document Supply Service.

In this section

Deaccessioning Policy


PDF files

The links below are to Adobe PDF files. Accessibility solutions and free Reader software are available from Adobe.

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