The UK national newspaper collection, held by the British Library, is one of the greatest of its kind in the world. Spanning more than three centuries, it comprises local, regional and national newspapers from across the UK as well as many overseas titles. It is an invaluable historical resource for tens of thousands of researchers every year and continues to grow as some 1200 titles every week are received by the Library through legal deposit.
The new long-term home for the newspaper collection has officially opened, marking the culmination of a £33 million programme to move, preserve and provide access to the newspaper collection for generations to come. The National Newspaper Building, located at the British Library’s northern site at Boston Spa, West Yorkshire, was opened by Councillor David Congreve, the Lord Mayor of Leeds, and Alec Shelbrooke MP (Elmet and Rothwell).
“Across the centuries, the British public have always had a voracious appetite for newspapers – they form the record of the nation’s memory at local, regional and national level,” said Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, “so I’m delighted to see the National Newspaper Building officially open and fully operational, preserving nearly three quarters of a billion newspaper pages and also enabling sustainable long-term access to the collection to the thousands of researchers who use our Reading Rooms every year.
“Custodianship of the national collection of published content is one of the British Library’s core purposes, and formed the centrepiece of Living Knowledge, our new vision, launched just last week that will take the Library towards where it wants to be by the time of its 50th anniversary in 2023. The National Newspaper Building is a spectacular example of the Library fulfilling that purpose and striking a vital balance between meeting the needs of researchers today and our duty to preserve this priceless collection for future generations.”
Project and cost managed by Capita, the National Newspaper Building was purpose-built to provide the ideal environmental conditions in which to store millions of old newspapers – many of which are in a fragile state. The vast facility, which houses around 33km of newspapers, maintains constant temperature and humidity, and a dark and airtight, low-oxygen environment to eliminate the risk of fire. The newspapers are stored in high-density racking 20 metres high and collection items are retrieved by robotic cranes, which transfer stacks of newspapers via an airlock to a retrieval area where staff can remove requested items and send them either to the British Library Newsroom at St Pancras or the on-site Reading Room at Boston Spa.
Newspapers are an inherently fragile medium – in many cases designed to be read once and then thrown away. Many older newspapers were printed on poor quality paper or with materials that, over time, are prone to deterioration. The newspaper collection’s previous home, in Colindale, north London, was a 1930s building with inadequate environmental conditions for long-term storage of newspapers. By 2008 some 15% of the newspaper collection was deemed too fragile to be viewed in the Reading Room, while a further 19% was at risk of deteriorating to a similar level.
In 2009, the Department for Culture Media and Sport confirmed £33 million of funding for a wide-ranging programme that would move the collection out of Colindale and into a purpose built storage facility at Boston Spa.
A vibrant and eclectic newspaper industry has long been a cornerstone of British society, and the National Newspaper Building will preserve some of our most valuable printed heritage for future generations. The cutting edge technology used to store these newspapers will also ensure they are accessible to researchers and the public for years to come.
As well as the construction of the National Newspaper Building (which cost £23 million of the total), the British Library newspaper programme also included a full upgrade of the catalogue records of the newspaper collection, the construction of the Newsroom at St Pancras and the refurbishment of the Reading Room at Boston Spa, as well as one of the largest and most complex sequences of collection moves the Library has ever undertaken.
Once the building was complete and the automated storage system had been fully tested, newspaper items began to be moved into the facility in March last year. Over the following months, 167 lorries carried more than 280,000 bound volumes of newspapers from Colindale to Boston Spa, with the moves finally completed in November 2014. In addition to the newspapers, the Library has also moved periodicals and other newspaper items to other storage facilities at Boston Spa, so the total size of the move is nearer 600,000 volumes.
As well as providing access to the print newspapers, where microfilm and digital copies are not available, the British Library’s newspaper programme also established a 10-year partnership with DC Thomson Family History (formerly brightsolid) to digitise 40 million newspaper pages and make them available online. 10 million pages are already available online at www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk which offers a subscription service – or can be viewed for free in any of the British Library’s Reading Rooms, including Boston Spa.
“Newspapers are a treasure trove of vivid detail for researchers and historians,” said Jackie Depelle, Chair of the Yorkshire Group of Family History Societies. “Digitisation projects like the British Newspaper Archive have the potential to transform genealogical research: searching by a name, place or other element of personal interest can uncover everything from everyday life to hidden secrets. Family historians are discovering birth, marriage and death announcements, criminal proceedings, celebrations and sadness, trade and travel – never before could we get so close to our ancestors.”
Roly Keating concluded: “The National Newspaper Building is the latest milestone on our long-term vision for the British Library site at Boston Spa. Its position at the geographical heart of the UK makes it the ideal location for print storage, not just for the British Library’s own collections but also those of a range of potential partner institutions. As we set out in Living Knowledege, we look forward to exploring the possibilities of a national print storage facility over the coming years – and a secure and sustainable future for the Boston Spa site for many years to come.”
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