About the British Library

About the British Library ond_admin November 9, 2022

The British Library is the National Library of the United Kingdom.

Established in 1973 by an act of Parliament known as the British Library Act, the British Library was intended as the UK’s central information hub, designed to advance research in science, technology, business, humanities, and the arts, among other fields.

Prior to 1973, the collections of the British Library were part of the British Museum. Founded in 1753, the “British Museum Library,” as it was then called, contained a collection of historic documents and manuscripts that became the foundational holdings of the newly created, independent British Library in the 1970s. Originally conceived to contain the world’s largest collections of historical and contemporary books, manuscripts, and periodicals from across the globe, the British Museum Library’s materials soon grew. Following the 1853 acquisition of holdings such as the extensive library of King George III—which today, as the “King’s Library,” constitutes the centerpiece of the current British Library’s architecture as a transparent column of books—as well as the collections of Sir Hans SloaneSir Robert Cotton and Robert and Edward Harley, the British Museum Library then moved to be housed within the larger space of the British Museum site. 

Until the opening of the British Library’s current building at 96 Euston Road, Library readers conducted their research in a domed central reading room, known as the “Round Reading Room,” within the British Museum.

Though much of the Library’s holdings were moved off-site for safekeeping during the uncertainty of the Blitz amidst the Second World War, the collection did sustain substantial damage and there was a loss of books. The ATBL was founded in 1979 by a dedicated group of bibliophiles who wanted to help replenish and support the rebuilding of such an important literary repository.

The British Library as it exists today moved to its current home in 1997, with the building officially opening in 1998. The 96 Euston Road facility was designed by husband-and-wife architectural team Sir Colin St. John Wilson (1922–2007) and American MJ Long (1939–2018). The building was intended to resemble a ship.

In addition to the 96 Euston Road building, the British Library extends to its 44-acre Boston Spa site in Yorkshire, which houses over 7 million items and 80% of the Library’s print collection. The Library’s storage facilities at Boston Spa include 300 kilometers of books, magazines, and newspapers.

Some of the many highlights of the Library’s collections include original copies of the Magna Carta; the first surviving manuscript of epic poem Beowulf; the Codex Sinaiticus; manuscripts by Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Lewis Carroll; Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook; the world’s earliest maps and the first photos of the moon; a Japanese example of one of the earliest examples of printing anywhere; and so much more extending from ancient times to the present, and across all cultures.

The Library welcomes 1.6 million visitors each year from all over the world, with over 100,000 people per year visiting the Library’s exhibitions in China. The Library’s Business & IP Centre national network supported over 23,000 people to start up and grow successful businesses, while over 33,000 students and teachers participate in learning programs on-site each year. Over 400,000 users from all around the world visit the Library’s Reading Rooms; together, they consult over 1.5 million items. The Library’s online learning resources engage over 8 million unique visitors, and web users generate over 6 million catalogue searches, referencing almost 4 million items online.

The British Library: Quick Stats!

Over 170 million collection items from almost every language and faith group.

746 km of total storage shelving, growing an extra 8 km per year, with over 1 petabyte of digital collections.

If you see 5 items per day, it would take you over 80,000 years to see the whole collection.

The Library receives a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland.

The Library at the British Museum, 1947

Retrieving Items at the Library

Conservation at the Library

Who Works at the British Library?

What Can You See at the British Library?

Explore selected past and current British Library exhibitions.

Who Uses the British Library?