Inside the British Library

One of our team recently had the chance to visit the British Library at Boston Spa, and take a tour of the site. Many researchers are probably familiar with the services offered by the British Library – digitisation and reading rooms being obvious examples – but this was a more ‘behind the scenes’ look at what happens at the Yorkshire site.

Our tour began with the digital preservation efforts taking place. We were shown into a


Some of the classic computers

room full of classic computers – Apple, Atari, Macintosh Classic, Commodore tape players – all were present and elicited nostalgic cooing from many of the librarians on the tour. The British Library is using emulators to run and preserve the programs from these machines, hopefully for patrons to be able to access in the future. While we there, we saw an emulator running the game Elite from an old PC on one side of the room to a modern one on the other side. It just demonstrates that while we may assume that digital data and information is safe, the truth is much more complicated – technological advances, changing formats, and data corruption can lead to information being irrevocably lost if it is not managed and preserved correctly.

In the Research Support team, our most frequent encounter with the British Library is via EThOS. EThos is the British Library’s database of UK doctoral research theses. Interested parties can request a thesis to be digitised if it is not already available on the site. That’s where we come in – requests are sent to the Research Support team, who check the thesis for any copyright issues before sending it to the British Library to be digitised. This was the next stop on our tour, and we got to see the scanners used including the massive A0 scanner (complete with warning tape on the floor around it) and the automatic page-turning scanner – though unfortunately this was not turned on.


View between two of the aisles of storage

We saw the journal and monograph storage, and piles of newspapers from all over the country waiting to be moved to the newspaper storage building. The real highlight of the trip, perhaps oddly, was the book storage. Yes, typical librarian loved seeing where all the books were housed! The site has two fully automated storage warehouses for books, which are temperature and oxygen controlled (it is literally impossible to light a match inside.) Materials are stored in boxes and as requests come in they are retrieved from these boxes by automated retrieval systems. We got to see one of the automatic cranes in action returning a box to its place in the warehouse – much more exciting in person than it sounds!

It was fascinating to see the activities that go on in running something as large as the British Library and seeing how our team at UWE Bristol fits in.

Images: ‘British Library sign’, ‘Classic computers’ and ‘Storage’ are all by Charley Vaughton and are licensed under CC BY 4.0


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