British Library Builds for the Future

A number of our Final Year history students here at Kingston University are currently engaged in Dissertation research in various archives in and around Britain’s capital city, including the fantastic British Library (BL), located at St. Pancras in central London.

British LibraryThe BL is just 25-30 minutes away from Kingston by train. The BL’s collections hold a huge range of primary and secondary sources, and publishers in the UK are required by law to provide a copy to the BL of any book published in english in this country. The BL’s collections also contain numerous other items of english and non-english material. These offer a whole spectrum of research possibilities for historians, whether academic scholars, students or other members of the public. Despite some quite drastic funding squeezes imposed on its finances by central government in recent years, the BL has still managed to devote considerable resources to impressive and ambitious new digitization projects, together with the electronic archiving of selected websites for the use of future generations of researchers.

The BL recently announced some exciting details about its new ‘Building the Future’ expansion project, which will see the eventual development of some 2.8 acres of unused land at the northern end of the BL’s site in St. Pancras, adjacent to the Francis Crick Institute, and opposite the Midland Road entrance to St. Pancras railway station.

The ambitious expansion plans have grown out of the BL’s ‘Living Knowledge’ vision, a project that has been initiated as the BL approaches its 50th anniversary in 2023. After the closure of the BL’s old Round Reading Rooms at the British Museum in Bloomsbury, the present St. Pancras building and site officially opened in November, 1997, and the building is now a Grade I listed building. It was designed by the late architect Sir Colin St. John Wilson, who devoted an astonishing 37 years of his career to the new BL’s design and construction.

While the new BL building did not go down well with some critics when it first opened (it was compared to an ‘East German secret police training academy’), the building – especially its interiors – has come to be loved by many of its regular users and readers. But this has also created its own challenges. A very busy atmosphere can often be detected throughout the corridors and main Reading Rooms. Indeed, on some days – often in the afternoon – some of the main Reading Rooms at St. Pancras have even seen Readers having to wait for seats to become available.

Recent additions to the site have included the relocation of the BL’s newspaper Reading Rooms from Colindale in north London to St. Pancras to create the new ‘News Room’ Reading Room. Rather sadly, however, the BL’s newspaper collection, due mainly to lack of storage space at St. Pancras and to important conservation issues, had to be split between two sites, with the bulk of it going into a new hi-tech storage facility at Boston Spa in Yorkshire.

On some days, the various cafe and eating areas at St. Pancras are clearly inadequate, with few seats left. In fact, the BL has become so busy at certain peak times that it has become very clear that many of the physical spaces at the site have nearly reached capacity. In particular, the BL now appears to have realised that its exhibition galleries are increasingly inadequate for the range of exhibitions regularly put on by the BL.

Recent exhibitions have included highly successful ones on Comics and culture, the role of Propaganda, and the importance of Magna Carta, all of which saw numerous visitors. They were all very enjoyable events and proved popular with the public.

All of these considerations have evidently encouraged the BL to have a radical rethink about the future of the St. Pancras site, which is very welcome news.

The BL’s new ‘Building the Future’ plans thus include a new HQ for the Alan Turing Institute for ‘big data’ science research, new exhibition and gallery spaces, new learning and study facilities, new public spaces, and additional catering facilities (let’s face it: coffee breaks remain essential in any research!). Interestingly, there will also be a new public entrance located on Midland Road.

Further details and visual images about the BL’s plans can be found at:


This entry was posted in Archives, British history, Media history, Museums, Public History, Teaching, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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