The British Library

On Thursday, July 16, our class took the "Tube" to the King's Crossing Station to visit the U.K.'s national library, named the British Library. The British Library is third in national library collection size behind the Lenin Library in Moscow and the Library of Congress in the United States. There are 2300 people on staff at the British Library and their task is to acquire everything published in England, preserve it and make it available to researchers. the library contains materials in every language in the world, and there is a librarian who is proficient in each of them.
The main British Library site in London is designed to look like a naval ship, cost 450 million pounds to build, and 36 years (1961-1997) to complete from inception to full function. There are 170 million items in the collection, and the number is constantly growing. It is estimated that if a person were to read 5 items per day, everyday, it would take him or her 80,000 years to get through the collection!

Since the majority of the library's collection is stored in stacks, 75 feet under the building, library patrons have to request materials and the staff members along with an intricate electronic system will retrieve the materials. To be eligible for a "Reader's Pass" one must submit the appropriate identification, a brief bibliography and explanation of what is being sought, as well as getting one's picture taken for the pass. The library has issued about 600,000 Reader's Passes since it opened in 1997, and there are about 114,000 "live" readers at the moment. There are 11 different reading rooms that are identified by subjects studied there for library patrons to take advantage of.

There are 50 mechanical book handling rooms throughout the library, which are all equipped with the automated book retrieval system (ABRS) that work with conveyor belts and optical scanning which move the materials from the stacks to the patrons. There are 22,000 possible routes that an item can go through with the ABRS, and the system is sophisticated enough to avoid any points of congestion in any given route. The British Library goes through a pretty standard acquitisiton process, except when it comes to the classification or shelving system. The librarians place the books by size, in order to conserve the most amount of space, since the book location is scanned as soon as it is entered, it is possible to retrieve a book about dogs, even if it is amidst Russian dictionaries. This system was designed by Antonio Panizzi, and it is a great example of making a decision based on an organization's specific needs, rather than generally accepted practices.

Some of the unique highlights of the library include the Glass Tower, the treasures of the British Library and the 400 year old Dutch Atlas on display. The prominently displayed Glass Tower are the shelves that contain 10,000 bibliographic items that King George III donated to the library for public use in 1820. The treasures of the British Library Johannes Gutenberg's first printed bible, the original copy of the Magna Carta and the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest handwritten complete version of the Christian Bible, which is at leasat 1600 years old. The book of Dutch maps from the 1600's is about 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide and it locked in a glass case, it is a marvel to behold even in this restrictive state.

Our tour guide, Mr. Kevin Mehmet was wise enough to leave us to ponder the questions that are on the horizon for this institution and the profession as a whole. It is clear that the antiquated printed materials in the collection are still readable today, is the same true for some our recent digital publications? As we move into the digital age, how will we preserve the materials and protect the rights of the creators. By 2012, the British Library hopes to have 400,000 items digitized to increase access for its patrons. This also anticipates that paper publications will be significantly reduced by 2020. Although the increased digitization will inevitably change the way we think about managing data, the British Library, as shown by jam packed hallways and reading rooms, serves a function that seems to always be necessary.

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