The Reading Room, 1857, medium, dimensions, published in The Illustrated London News, vol.30, 8 May 1857 (London: Illustrated London News & Sketch Ltd., 1842

Quart into a pint pot: the accommodation problems of the British Museum Library

The King’s Topographical Collection joined an ever-expanding collection at the British Museum. Phil Harris looks at the changes made to the British Museum and British Library to cope with the volume of material they contain.

The British Museum Library had a perennial problem. It very rarely disposed of any of the material which it acquired and so it constantly suffered from lack of space as its collections grew remorselessly.

This was not a problem during the first half-century of the British Museum’s existence after it was founded in 1753 and accommodated in Montagu House, a late 17th century mansion in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury.

The South Front of the British Museum, from the Quadrangle

John Chessell Buckler (1793-1894), The South Front of the British Museum, from the Quadrangle, 1828, plate 25.2 x 40.5 cm, image 34 x 45.3 cm, reprinted in Sir Frederic George Kenyon (1863-1952), The Buildings of the British Museum (London: The Artist’s Press, Donald Macbeth 1914), plate VII, K.T.C.122.b.8

Montagu House provided much of the accommodation for the British Museum until the construction of the new building, designed by Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867) between 1823 and 1845.

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Held by© British Library

During this period accessions to the collections of the library departments were few, because the Museum had little money to buy material and few gifts were received. Although the Museum inherited from the Old Royal Library (which George II presented to it in 1757) the privilege of receiving without charge copies of all new British publications ( a system known as copyright deposit or legal deposit) few such publications were received during this period. Allowing for the fact that several thousand duplicates were sold in 1769 and 1788 the stock of printed books in 1800 was probably slightly less than the 51,000 which were held in the 1750s when the Museum was founded.

There were few readers in the 18th century. A reading room was provided on the ground floor from 1759. It suffered from damp, so in 1774 the readers were moved to two rooms on the first floor. Only between 125 and 160 readers’ tickets were issued each year.

The collections began to grow after 1800. The Lansdowne Manuscripts were acquired in 1807, and printed books from the collections of C.M. Cracherode, Sir Joseph Banks and Charles Burney (which included many British newspapers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) were received. In 1817 2000 volumes of pamphlets relating to the French Revolution were purchased. From 1813 Parliament made special grants to fill gaps in the collections of printed books. To provide space for this increased intake, galleries were constructed from 1814 in eight of the rooms occupied by the library.

The deteriorating state of Montagu House and the need for more space led the Trustees of the British Museum to campaign for a completely new building. The decision of George IV to transfer to the Museum the library built up by his father George III (the King’s Library and King’s Topographical Collection) enabled the Trustees to put pressure on the Government for a new building, because such a large collection as the King’s Library could not possibly be accommodated in Montagu House. The east wing of the new building (which still forms the bulk of the present British Museum) was constructed between 1823 and 1827.

The King’s Library

Henry Shaw (1800-73), The King’s Library, 1834, engraving, 11.2 x 16.8 cm, published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, vol.1., January-June, 1834 (London: William Pickering, John Bowyer Nichols and Son, 1834), 249.f.9-25

The King’s Library was the first part of Sir Robert Smirke’s new British Museum to be constructed

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The 65,000 volumes of the King’s Library were moved into the new gallery in 1828; this increased the collection of printed books by over 50 per cent as compared with the 116,000 volumes which the Museum held in 1821. Three rooms for the Department of Manuscripts to the south of the King’s Library gallery were constructed when the east wing was built; these were brought into use in 1827. As well as housing the collections of manuscripts, they also provided two new reading rooms in the Middle and South Rooms (accommodating 120 readers) to replace the small rooms used in Montagu House. The Middle and South Rooms served as reading rooms until they were replaced by two rooms in the east part of the North Wing (to hold 161 readers) in 1838.

Work on the North Wing of the new building began in 1833, and between 1838 and 1840 the collections of printed books were moved there from Montagu House which was finally demolished in 1845. As the North Wing was soon completely full, an extension of it to the west (the Arch Room) was built by the end of 1842.

The Large Room and The Arched Room

Unknown artist, The Arch Room, 1851, wood engraving, 41 x 28 cm, published in The Illustrated London News, vol.18, 7 June, 1851 (London: Illustrated London News & Sketch Ltd., 1842-) British Museum, EPH-ME.704

The Arched Room at the British Museum was part of an 1842 extension to provide more storage for books

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It was estimated that the Arch Room would hold five years’ accessions, but it was soon realised that it would be full by 1846. So a room running along the east side of the King’s Library (the Long Room) was built between 1846 and 1848.

The success of Antonio Panizzi, the Keeper of the Department of Printed Books, in obtaining an increased Treasury purchase grant of £10,000 per annum from 1846 soon made lack of book storage space critical again. So did Panizzi’s success in increasing the intake of legal deposit material after he was put in charge of this type of accessions in 1850.

The Reading Room

The Reading Room, 1857, medium, dimensions, published in The Illustrated London News, vol.30, 8 May 1857 (London: Illustrated London News & Sketch Ltd., 1842

Lack of reading room space in the British Museum led Antonio Panizzi (1797-1879), the Keeper of Printed Books, to suggest the building of a new circular room, surrounded by four bookstacks in the central courtyard

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By 1852 Panizzi was forced to ask for a reduced purchase grant of £2,500 per annum because of lack of space to house new accessions. Then in April of that year he produced a plan to build in the central courtyard of the Museum a circular Reading Room surrounded by four bookstacks known as quadrants. This structure was built between 1854 and 1857. The new domed Reading Room held 302 readers and the surrounding bookstacks (known as the Iron Library) were designed to hold about 1.5 million volumes.

The move of the natural history departments of the Museum to South Kensington between 1880 and 1883 eased the accommodation problems of the Bloomsbury building. However when in 1879 news was received of the death of the widow of William White (he himself had died in 1823) who had a life interest in the estate of her husband, the Museum received a bequest of £64,000. It was decided to use this money to pay for a new building at the south-east corner of the Museum, to be called the White Wing. This was completed by 1885 and provided among other things for a Students’ Room for the Department of Manuscripts (most manuscripts had hitherto been read in the main Reading Room) and a reading room for newspapers.To reduce pressure on the round Reading Room, the Large Room (at the centre of the north wing) was used for readers who needed to consult rare or large books from the 1880s. Increased accommodation for books was provided by installing moveable presses in the Iron Library. The first 25 moveable presses were put in place in 1887-8.

The increased intake of newspapers led to the construction of a repository for them at Colindale (Hendon) in north London between 1903 and 1905. Newspapers were not read at Colindale but were brought up to Bloomsbury to be consulted there.

A complete new building was constructed to the north of the British Museum between 1906 and 1914 and named the King Edward VII Building. It provided enlarged accommodation for the Copyright Receipt Office (Legal Deposit Office), the intake of which increased by more than fifty per cent between 1901 and 1914. It also provided space to expand the Large Room (renamed the North Library) which was increasingly being used as a reading room for rare books. Extra reader accommodation was needed because between 1876 and 1906 the number of reader visits to the library doubled. As well as providing exhibition space for antiquities the King Edward VII Building in due course housed the Music and Map Rooms , and the collections of official publications. Pressure on the main Reading Room was slightly eased when a reading room for the Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts was provided in the Long Room in 1898.

By the 1920s lack of book storage space was again a problem, and this could not be solved by adding more moveable presses because these were straining the structure of the Iron Library. So a large-scale rebuilding project was started in the 1930s.

Plan of the British Museum

Plan of the British Museum in the 1930s, published London, William Clowes & Sons, Ltd., lithograph, republished in Summary Guide to the Exhibition Galleries of the British Museum, fourteenth edition, (London: printed by order of the Trustees of the British Museum, 1930),

This shows additions to the British Museum built in the 1930s to provide space for the Library department

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The north wing (except for the Arch Room) which contained the working space for the staff as well as book storage space was rebuilt between 1932 and 1937. One of the four bookstacks of the Iron Library (the North-west Quadrant) was rebuilt between 1934 and 1936 with six floors instead of three floors. The North Library was reconstructed and reopened in 1937. The Colindale Newspaper Library was enlarged in 1932 and a reading room was provided there so that newspapers no longer had to be transported to Bloomsbury for use by readers. The rebuilding of the North-east Quadrant bookstack of the Iron Library was begun in 1939 but its completion was delayed by the outbreak of war.

The British Museum suffered considerable damage from air raids during the 1939-45 War. Damage to the library resulted from a high explosive bomb in the King’s Library in September 1940 and another which struck the Colindale Newspaper Library in October 1940. The great disaster was the destruction of the South-west Quadrant bookstack by incendiary bombs in May 1941. About 240,000 volumes were destroyed. Although the damaged areas were restored in due course, pressure on space was so great that it was decided by the Trustees to press for a completely new building to house the library departments immediately south the the Museum building. Plans were drawn up, and the designation of the site to the south of Great Russell Street was included in the London County Council’s development plan in 1951. A long delay followed.

The King’s Library was repaired by 1951, the destroyed South-west Quadrant bookstack was rebuilt by 1954 and an extra building for the Colindale Newspaper Library was finished in 1957. In 1958 the Department of Manuscripts was allocated residence no. 1 in the forecourt of the Museum (senior staff had originally lived in eight residences there) and the Manuscripts Students’ Room was enlarged in 1957. The desperate needs of the Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts were temporarily solved in 1954 when it was allocated the building known as the Drill Hall behind 1A Montagu Street (which had been used by the Army during the war) and also allowed to take over residence no. 3.

The space needs of the largest library department (the Department of Printed Books) became ever more pressing. So when in 1963 an Act of Parliament changed the constitution of the British Museum for the first time since it was founded in 1753, a clause was included which gave the Trustees power to outhouse parts of the collections. Space was obtained in one of the buildings of the former Woolwich Arsenal in south-east London, and in 1964 (when it was estimated that in a few months’ time there would be no room to house the normal intake of books in the British Museum building) a large collection of material was sent to Woolwich.

Only a new building for the library could solve its problems and from 1959 the Trustees of the Museum pressed hard to achieve this. In 1962 architects were appointed to design a new building for the site south of the Museum. Opposition to this plan developed from local residents, the local M.P. and members of the Government. In 1967 to the dismay and anger of the Museum Trustees the Government announced that it had abandoned the plan to build a new library for the Museum south of Great Russell Street. A National Libraries Committee was set up by the Department of Education and Science in December 1967, under the chairmanship of Dr. Fred (later Lord) Dainton to consider the future of the British Museum Library and other libraries. In March 1969 Dr. Dainton sent his Committee’s report to the Secretary of State for Education and Science recommending that the libraries which they had studied should be combined to form a new national library. This was eventually called the British Library and set up in 1973.

So the library departments were separated from the British Museum of which they had formed a part since 1753. The Government accepted the need for a new building to house the London parts of the British Library (although the site was moved from Great Russell Street to St. Pancras on the Euston Road) but the new building was not ready for occupation until 1998. So for twenty-five years the former British Museum Library remained in the British Museum building and continued to struggle with the accommodation problems which had plagued it for most of its history.

  • Phil Harris

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