History of the British Library

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom. The origins and foundations of this significant library which was established in 1753. A donation was given to the library from the Royal book collection of King George III to the library in 1827 and housed in this first public museum. For over 200 years the collection was added to and kept as part of the British Museum library.

During the library's history from 1700's onwards many developments and changes have occured to the library's current day status as one of the worlds most visited national libraries. Today the collection contains million's of text book, journals, rare manuscripts, maps, encyclopaedias, newspaper collection, ephemera and resources available on-line. It wasn’t until 1973 that the British Library was established and became a new and separate organization.

King George III Collection

The Foundation Collection

The Library was established by Parliament in 1753 after the British Museum opened. The director of the museum was known as the “Principal Librarian”. The collection included the Cottonian library holdings. This was known as the foundation collection which included other private collections bequeathed to the library. King George II in 1759 presented the Royal collection. This private and Royal collection built up the library foundation which included many manuscripts and printed books. Adding to this King George III collection was donated by the Crown.

The King's Library in 1851

"When George III came to the throne in 1760, there was no substantial royal library. The so-called Old Royal Library had been moved out of St James's Palace in 1708, before being finally presented to the new British Museum by King George II in 1757. (The Old Royal Library is now dispersed in the British Library.) George III therefore inherited only small collections of books, located in various royal residences.

King George III, 1762
He seems to have decided early in his reign to form a new library, one worthy of an 18th-century monarch. The first major step towards this was achieved in 1763 with the acquisition of the library of Joseph Smith (1682-1770), who had been British Consul at Venice. This collection was especially rich in the classics and in examples of early printing. From around this time, King George's agents attended many of the major book sales held in London and on the Continent. They acquired both individual volumes and entire private libraries, benefiting especially from the closure and dispersal of Jesuit libraries across southern Europe. Some significant works were also donated, including examples of early printing as well as contemporary works presented by their authors.

From 1774, and for the rest of the King's life, Frederick Augusta Barnard (1742-1830) was the Royal Librarian. Barnard tried to develop the collection in a systematic way, and sought guidance from notable intellectual figures, including the writer and lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson. With this advice, the collection grew to be rich in classical literature, British and European history, English and Italian literature, and religious texts."

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
It also contains many examples of early printing, including a copy of the Gutenberg Bible (copy printed on paper at shelfmark C.9.d.3,4), and Caxton's first edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (shelfmark 167.c.26). But it also contained less scholarly material, including many of the more general periodicals of the day. By the time of the King's death in 1820, the Library comprised around 65,000 volumes of printed books, with a further 19,000 pamphlets. There were also manuscripts (now in the British Library Manuscript Collections), as well as bound volumes of maps and topographical views (mostly with the British Library Map Collections)".

Image of Gutenberg Bible

The King's Library


The Museum Library: a gift to the nation 
"At the death of George III in 1820, the collection passed to his son George IV, Prince Regent since 1811. The new king was soon set on rebuilding the Queen's House to provide a suitable palace, and after some negotiation with the government, the library was offered as a gift to the British nation in 1823. It was decided that the gift should be placed in the British Museum, on the understanding that it would keep its separate identity. After a temporary sojourn in Kensington Palace, in 1828 the books (with the exception of a few choice items withheld by the King and today at the Royal Library Windsor) were moved to the new King's Library Gallery, designed in Greek Revival style especially for the collection by Sir Robert Smirke. The arrival of the King's Library doubled the size of the British Museum's printed book collections."

The British Museum: [Payne, Albert Henry, 1812-1902].

An engraving from the workshop of Albert Henry Payne. One of a series of "Illustration London, or a Series of the Views in the British Metropolis and it's Vicinity". [London, 1852].

The King’s Library

"The King's Library was a royal collection of books created by King George III and donated to the nation. A gallery, named after the collection, was built at the British Museum in 1827 to house them. It is the oldest room in the Museum and now home to the permanent exhibition Enlightenment: Discovering the world in the eighteenth century".

Growth to the 20th Century

Montagu House
Montagu House in Bloomsbury was sold to the Trustees of the British Museum in 1759 and was the home of that institution until it was demolished in the 1840s to make way for larger premises. The library's first reading room was established in Montagu House which was the original home of the British Museum. As patronage increased more reading rooms were constructed. After the donation of books from King George III’s collection, the library's growth and development depended upon donations from the aristocracy of that society.

In 1837 Antonio Panizzi was given the position of “Keeper of the Printed Books”. One of his tasks was to relocate the 235,000 volumes to a new building. During his time working at the British Museum library, Panozzi developed a new cataloguing system. He was able to convince the parliament to enforce a law whereby all publishers made a legal deposit titles. A massive circular reading room constructed of glass, cast iron and concrete was opened in 1857 which contained 25 miles of shelving space. To use this room library patrons were required to apply in writing to the for a “readers ticket" from the principal librarian.

British Museum Reading Room 1857 
 During this period the library grew rapidly. Another notable person working in the library, Sir Fredrick Madden acquired a collection of valuable manuscripts which have become national treasures. Madden worked the remains of damaged books burned by the Cottonian fires (1731). By 1857 the hand written catalogue had grown to 2,250 volumes and a total of 1.25 million printed volumes were held. The library's general catalogue was not completed till 1905.

Diamond Sutra - 9th Century, China

Rare and valuable items were collected such as the Gutenberg Bible, 1215 Magna Carta. Working manuscripts from well know composers such as Bitten to Bach, other printed materials, maps and a collection know as the Oriental Department including a copy of the Diamond Sutra from the 9th Century China. The Indian Office were established through legal deposits

As the library's collection grew a new building was constructed early in the 20th Century. This was to house a Map Library, Music Library and Newspaper Library, Official Publications and a Copyright Receipt Office.

1940 onwards

During the early days of World War 2 London was under considerable air raid attacks from German bombers which destroyed a large part of the library building and over 225,000 books were lost in 1941 fortunately a number of valuable items were taken to another location. After 1945 the building and bookstacks were rebuilt. By the 1960's storage space for the collection became a problem. During this decade consideration of extending the Museum Library (Bloomsbury site) but this proposal was  abandoned in 1967.

Libraries that contributed to the British Library

Patent Office Library 1962 National Library of Science and Invention

"The Second World War highlighted the need for a comprehensive scientific and technological network in the UK, specifically for a national library of science and technology. In the late 1940s and 50s there was considerable debate among the Scientific Community whether the collections of the libraries of the British Museum or the Patent Office should serve as the nucleus of this: the position was resolved in 1959 when a Working Party on the issue recommended that the proposed library should be based on the collections of both libraries and put under the control of the Museum Trustees. The National Reference Library of Science and Invention (as it was called) was set up in 1962, administratively as part of the British Museum library".

                               Reading room of the British Museum Library

National Central Library

"The National Central Library was founded in 1916 as the Central Library for Students. It was financed out of grants from the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, and its primary purpose was to lend books to adult class students who had no other sources for borrowing. In 1927 the Kenyon Committee on Public Libraries envisaged the library developing as the central clearing-house of an inter-library network embracing all the nation's resources, and it suggested that this development should take place under the aegis of the British Museum. In 1966 the NCL moved to a new building in Store Street near the British Museum Library".

National Lending Library for Science and Technology

"The third major component of the British Library consisted of the National Central Library or NCL which began operation in 1916 in London and the National Lending Library for Science and Technology (NLLST), in service since 1961 at Boston Spa in Yorkshire. These were amalgamated in 1973 as the British Library Lending Division (BLLD).
"During the 1970s the range of services was expanded and made available to international customers and use of technology became a more integral part of the service. The use of Automated Requesting grew by about 40% in this time and the Lending Division often acted in collaboration with academic and scientific partners in early days of exploring the future of fax transmission and satellite communications.
In 1985, the title was changed to the British Library Document Supply Centre to reflect the changing emphasis of document supply in which a greater proportion of requests were for copies of articles rather than loans".

The British Library Newspaper Collection

The British Museum collected newspapers from the 1820’s. By the 19th Century there was no more storage space at the British Museum and the bill of 1900 proposed to put a stop to the collection of English provincial, Irish, Welsh and Scottish newspapers. However there was considerable opposition to this proposal and a new site was established at Colindale (North London). A newspaper repository was built in 1828 and completed in 1932 with facilities for readers. This building was under attack during World War 2 resulting in a loss of over 6,000 provincial newspaper. Two temporary buildings were constructed and plans for a new repository put in place in1943 and new wing completed in 1957 and is still used today. In 1973 this Newspaper Library became part of the new British Library. Over the last decades the Reading Rooms have been extended to include microfilm area. In 1996 further extensions provide the users with network access to On-line newspapers and newspapers on CD ROMS. The collections provides access to British and overseas newspapers as well as holdings on trade papers, magazines and comics.

British Museum Newspaper Repository

British Museum Newspaper Repository 1980's

Development west of St. Pancras Station London

A new building for the British Library

By the early 1970’s there was a great shortage of storage space for the collection at the British Museum and the 1971 ‘White Paper’ report recognised there was an urgent need to rehouse the collection. . The Library's annual report for 1973-74 stated "A new building on the Bloomsbury site is the British Library's most urgent need". In 1974 due to local opposition the government decided against housing the library in Bloomsbury. The nearest site to the Museum was a derelict goods yard west of St Pancreas station. The development plan consisted of two wings housing reading rooms, public area, exhibition hall, science and humanities and rare books collections. An atmospheric temperature controlled environment was to be installed underneath the building for storage of books. The catalogue hall was changed to the King’s Library and included a restaurant. The building was to house all of the library's collection and allow for future growth and development. Construction of the new library was such a large project and had many delays including meeting rising costs along with political change during that time. The British Library was not officially opened untill 1998 by HM Queen Elizabeth II.

The Indian Office 1982 The Indian Office library and records which included the entire archives of the British India Company foundation 1600 to independence were transferred from the Commonwealth and Foreign Office and housed there within. This is currently one of the largest archives collections in the world.

The Library’s first Website

This was launched in 1994 as known as the 'gopher'. The system delivered plain text files and accessed via a menu of selectted topics using a 'keyword' search. The website adopted the use of frames when it became popular in the late 1990’s. The British Library Website was completely redesigned in 2001 with improved navigation and easy access and the number of times pages were requested daily trebled from 1998 - 2004.


Report on the history and development of the British Library

Origins and Foundation of the British Library

The British Library is the National library of the United Kingdom. The library was formed under the British Library Act in 1972 and in 1973 was established and became a new and separate organization to the British Museum. It consists of the former British Museum Library, the National Central Library, the National Lending Library for Science and Technology, the British National Bibliography, the Indian Office Library and Records, the British Newspaper collection, HMSO binderies and the National Sound Archives holdings.

The library’s origins trace back to the British Museum library which was founded in 1753 based on earlier collections including the Cottian library holdings and a bequest for King George III. Fredrick Augusta Barnard was appointed as Royal librarian and developed the collection in a systematic way. The collection included English and Italian literature and British and European history. Montague House was purchased by the National Trustees in1759 and became the first reading room. The growth and development of the library depended upon donations from aristocracy.

Montague House was demolished later to make way for a massive circular reading room which was opened in 1857 with Antonio Panizzi appointed to relocate the library and established a new cataloguing system. The library was selective of their patron who required a pass to be admitted. Holding readers included Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, Lenin who used the pseudonym Jacob Richter and George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf. Panizzi convinced the government to enforce a law that required all publishers to make legal deposits titles.

During World War 2 the library building and some 225,000 books were destroyed by air raid attacks. The rebuilding of the library and book stacks didn't begin till after 1945. By the 1960’s storage space became a problem and consideration to extend the Bloomsbury site was proposed. Storage space became an even greater problem by the early 1970's at the Museum Library. In 1971 the ‘White Paper” report recognized this urgency to re-house the library’s collection in a new building on the Bloomsbury site. In 1974 the government decided against this and a new site was found near St. Pancras station. It took over 30 years of political, economic and other assorted wrangling before the new library opened in 1997 and in 1998 was officially opened by HM Queen Elizabeth II.

The library’s first website was launched in 1995.  This was redesigned in 2001 and the number on time their pages are visited daily has trebled from 1998 – 2004.

The British Library Today

The British Library is situated at St Pancras, London and open to anyone who has a need to use their collection. The library has become one of the world's major research libraries, researchers can apply for a Readers Pass providing they have proof of signature and permanent address. 

The library is known as the world’s largest in terms of items held in their collection. The library’s collection includes 14 million books, second to the Library of Congress. The British Library contains holding of over 150 million items in all know languages and formats. Items such as books, newspapers, magazines, journals, data bases, music and sound recordings, maps, patents, drawings, prints, manuscripts dating back to 300BC.

The British Library is a legal deposit library and receives all books that are published in the UK and Ireland which includes all foreign books distributed in Britain. Items that are published outside UK and Ireland are also purchased as part of the collection. Every year 3 million items are added to their collection.

                                                  Lobby of the British Library 2001

 Reference list

The British Library 2010, George III Collection: the King’s Library, viewed 27 August 2010,

The British Museum 2010, King’s Library, viewed 27 August 2010,

'Cotton Library' 2010, Wikipedia, Wikipedia Online, viewed 20 October 2010,

'Montagu House : Bloomsberry', Wikipedia, Wikipedia Online,  viewed 27 October 2010,

Stuart, AP, Davis DG Jr.(Introduced by) & Basbanes, NA (Forward by) 2009, The Library: An illustrated History, American Library Association, Google Ebook library, p. 237-240, viewed 28 August2010,  

'Fredrick Augusta Barnard',  2010, Wikipedia, Wikipedia Online, viewed 27 October 2010,

Extracts from the British Library Website ‘About Us’, viewed 29 August 2010,

'Gutenberg Bible', 2010, Wikipedia, Wikipedia Online,  viewed 27 October 2010,

'Chaucers Canterbury Tales',  2010, Wikipedia, Wikipedia Online, viewed 27October 2010,

Swinburne Library, Inside (British Library), viewed 12 September 2010,

The British Library 2010, History of British Library Newspapers, viewed 12 September 2010,

British Library 2010, Electronic resources and journals, viewed 12 September 2010,

The British Library, 2010, 'About Us', viewed 25 September 2010,  <http://www.bl.uk/aboutus/quickinfo/facts/history/index.html>

 'Indian Office records', 2010, Wikipedia, Wikipedia Online, viewed 12 October 2010, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/India_Office_Records>

The British Library, 2010, 'Explore the world's knowledge', viewed 12 October 2010,< http://www.bl.uk/>http://www.bl.uk/>

Extracts from Wikipedia,  2010 'British Library', viewed 20 October, 2010,

Websites for Images

The British Library: the main pedestrian entrance 2010 [image], artofthestate.co.uk, viewed 20 August 2010,

British Library Gate shadow 2007 [image], New World Encyclopaedia, viewed 20 August 2010,

British Museum: The King’s Library in 1851 [image], British Museum, viewed 23 August 2010,

King George III of the United Kingdom 2009 [image],Wikipedia, viewed 23 August 2010,

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales [image], Google images, viewed 23 August 2010,

Gutenberg Bible 2007 [image], Google images, viewed 23 August 2010,

The Octagon Library at the Queens 1819 [image], British Library, viewed 27 August 2010,

Payne, Albert Henry, Antique prints of the British Museum 1852 [image], ashare, viewed 27 August 2010,

Simonc James, The North Prospect of Montagu House 1715 [image],Wikipedia, viewed 28 August 2010,

Jingangjing (Diamond Sutra) 2009 [image] viewed 28 August 2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jingangjing.jpg

WW2 Air raid spotter on London rooftop 2009 [image], Google images, viewed 29 August 2010,

British Museum Newspaper Repository, 1980's

Image of British Library

Lobby of the British library 2001

Video citation

BonnyBunny4real 2007 [You Tube Video Library], Reading Room of the British Museum, 16 April, viewed on 10 September 2010,