History of the British Library

From 3,000-year-old Chinese oracle bones to today’s newspapers, our collection spans the sands of time. But as a national library, we are younger than you may think...

How was the British Library formed?

The British Library came into existence in 1973 as a result of the British Library Act. Parliament’s vision was for a single institution at the heart of the UK’s information network, which would aid scientific and technological research, business, the arts and humanities.

To make this happen, several organisations were brought together to create a national library:

The British Museum Library

The British Museum Library, founded in 1753, contained one of the world’s largest collections of books, manuscripts and periodicals, both contemporary and antique, British and foreign.

It was created as ‘one general repository’ to hold the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, Sir Robert Cotton and Robert and Edward Harley. When it inherited the library of George III in 1823, its printed books doubled in number, prompting further development of the site of the current British Museum. Beyond donations, the library grew its collections through purchase, exchange and legal deposit.

Opening in 1857, the Library’s Round Reading Room – with its magnificent domed roof – became an iconic destination in the literary landscape of London. George Gissing used it as the setting of his 1891 novel New Grub Street, describing it as ‘the valley of the shadow of books’, while lamenting the difficulties of obtaining a Reader ticket. In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929), the Reading Room is a focal point in her examination of the exclusion of women from the literary cannon. Its roof was also used in the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Blackmail (1929).

The room welcomed many famous visitors including Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, George Bernard Shaw and Woolf. Lenin too applied for a Reader ticket, adopting the pseudonym Jacob Richter to cover his tracks from the Russian authorities.

Both the First and Second World Wars led to large projects to protect the collections. During World War II, the National Library of Wales collaborated on moving some of the British Museum's most precious treasures to a secure cave in Aberystwyth, with round the clock guards. Meanwhile, the King’s Library Gallery and Newspaper Library in Colindale, north London, suffered substantial damage from bombing.

Across its over 200-year history the British Museum Library grew and managed an unrivalled collection of unique treasures, innovating practices in librarianship and collection management.

Organisations now at our Boston Spa site in North Yorkshire

The National Central Library, founded in 1930, became the UK’s hub for inter-library lending. Started in 1916 as the Central Library for Students, its initial mission was to supply books needed by the adult classes run by the Workers’ Education Association. Based in London, the National Central Library’s reach grew, widening access to resources throughout the UK.

In 1962, the British Museum Library formed the National Lending Library for Science and Technology. It became the first organisation to operate in what would become our Boston Spa site, lending to libraries and other research institutions.

The foundation of the British Library saw the two organisations merge to create the British Library Lending Division, similar to our On Demand service today. Boston Spa also became home to our legal deposit team, receiving a copy of every work published in the UK, previously a function of the British Museum Library. Legal deposit works were published under the British National Bibliography, originally a separate organisation founded in 1949 created to centralise the cataloguing of British publications.

Today, our Boston Spa site continues to grow. We refurbished the Reading Room in 2014, and one year later, completed the National Newspaper Building, which uses robotic cranes to retrieve newspapers.

Other organisations that made up the British Library

Our Business and IP Centre, which supports small businesses and start-ups, has its origins in the Patent Office Library. Founded in 1885, it was incorporated into the British Museum Library as the National Reference Library of Science and Invention in 1966. It provided reference services for business, innovation and technology in the Holborn and Bayswater areas. In 1974, the Office of Science and Technical Information joined the British Library, leading research in library and information science.

Finally in 1982–83, we were joined by the Sound Archive (originally British Institute of Recorded Sound), the India Office collection (originally the India Office Library and Records) and HMSO Binderies, expanding the conservation and preservation services of the British Library

The opening of the British Library

One of the first challenges for the new British Library in 1973 was to find a premises to bring together these disparate collections and institutions.

An old rail goods yard in St Pancras would become our home. Opening its doors to the public in November 1997 and receiving an official inauguration by HM Queen Elizabeth II the following June, the Library became the largest public building constructed in Britain in the last 100 years.

Although its modernist design by architect Sir Colin St. John Wilson originally divided critics, the building achieved Grade 1 listed status in 2015. Today it lies at the centre of an area of huge regeneration, home to the Knowledge Quarter and Google. Learn more about the architecture of the British Library

The British Library today

Over the last 250 years, we’ve become one of greatest libraries in the world. Our physical collections are growing all the time and so are our digital collections, which include Digitised Manuscripts, the UK Web Archive and over 1 million rights-free images available on Flickr.

With a lively events and exhibitions programme, free business advice and plenty of places to meet, eat, drink and shop, we welcome 1.6 million visitors though our doors every year. Looking ahead to 2023, the year of our 50th anniversary, we aim to become the most open, creative and innovative institution of its kind in the world.