This week marks 50 years since the British Library began operations in July 1973. We legally came into existence following the passing of the British Library Act (1972) – born out of a vision to create a new kind of national institution, which would encourage scientific and technological research, business, the arts and humanities.
Several organisations, including the British Museum Library, were brought together to create the British Library. Since 1973, our collection has grown to become one of the great libraries of the world, making the nation's cultural and intellectual heritage available to everyone.
Our shelves hold over 170 million items – a living collection that gets bigger every day, supported by the Legal Deposit mandate to collect everything published in the UK, whether physical or digital. Our mission is to develop, preserve and provide access to the vast resource for today’s users and far into the future.
Some highlights since we began operations in 1973:
- Opening the first Business & IP Centre (BIPC) in St Pancras in 2006 and establishing the nationwide BIPC Network in 2012, with support from the Intellectual Property Office, then expanding to over 100 locations.
- Creating the Living Knowledge Network, a UK-wide partnership of national and public libraries, with the National Library of Scotland and National Library of Wales in 2016, which now comprises over 30 public library services.
- Helping to digitise over 11 million images and 35,000 sound tracks in more than 90 countries since 2004 through the Endangered Archives Programme.
- The purpose-built low-oxygen and high-density National Newspaper Building opened in Boston Spa, Yorkshire in 2015 to move, preserve and provide access to the national newspaper collection.
- Purchasing the St Cuthbert Gospel, a miraculously well-preserved 7th century manuscript.
- Bringing together for the first time the four original surviving Magna Carta manuscripts, cared for by the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral, to mark the 800th anniversary of the issue of the Charter by King John in 1215.
- Digitising and preserving more than 360,000 individual recordings since 2015, through the Save Our Sound’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and others.
Although our collection has developed over 250 years and continues to grow, we are relatively young as an institution. There will be a series of Pay-What-You-Wish events to celebrate our 50th anniversary. The programme will comprise of online and in-person events in London and Yorkshire throughout July.
We recently published a new strategic vision, Knowledge Matters, which outlines how, as the UK’s national library, we will serve new and existing audiences over the next seven years while adapting to the monumental changes already impacting the knowledge industry and the wider world.
Image credit: British Library Archive