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 a move to the site of the current British Museum.

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. 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 Virginia Woolf. Lenin too applied for a Reader ticket, adopting the pseudonym Jacob Richter to cover his tracks from the Russian authorities.

During World War II, some of our most precious treasures were moved to a secure cave in Aberystwyth, with round the clock guards. Meanwhile, the Newspaper Library in Colindale, north London, suffered substantial damage from bombing and some of the collection had to be transferred to quarries in Wiltshire while repairs were made.

Organisations at our Boston Spa site in North Yorkshire

In 1961, the National Lending Library for Science and Technology became the first organisation to operate in what would become our Boston Spa site. Formerly based in Woolwich under the National Central Library (established in 1916), the team supported lending to libraries and other research institutions, similar to our On Demand service today.

Boston Spa also became home to our legal deposit, receiving a copy of every work published in the UK, and publishing the records under the British National Bibliography (founded in 1949).

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. This provided reference services for business, innovation and technology in the Holborn and Bayswater areas.

Finally in 1982–83, we were joined by the Sound Archive (originally the National Sound Archive) and India Office collection (originally the India Office Library and Records).

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.