22 August 2023
An innovative history of the historic patent collection at the British Library
Sir Isaac Newton, once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” A few generations after, the Newtonian revolution in physics along with other discoveries of the time heralded in a new age of innovation, engineering and industry. Patents are the primary records of that step process in innovation. They’re a fascinating and invaluable ‘time capsule’ of brilliance (and occasional eccentricity).
Today, the British Library’s historical patent collection has become a world leading collection of historical IP documentation; not only from the UK, but from over 150 countries worldwide. No other collection at the Library captures better the progress of technology and commerce from the early 17th century to the present day.
And now, the British Library’s Business & IP Centre also sits on the shoulders of this gigantic treasure trove of patent, design and trademark information. In fact, it’s almost 170 years since it was first made available to the general public as the Library of the newly formed Patent Office. It really is a library within a library. The history and development of the collection offers us an intriguing insight into how much this information was prioritised managed valued, for researchers then as it is now. One report, by the US Commissioner of Patents in the 1860s described it as a ‘technological library unequalled by anything in America’.
I believe it still is.
Why a patent library?
From a practical point of view, a patent library is an essential part of being able to find (and provide evidence) that a new patent application is indeed an innovative step on what’s preceded it. One can view the history of these patents almost like a family tree of technical steps and developments, each building on the other.
Hot off the heels of the Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852, establishing what we know as the Patent Office (the Intellectual Property Office today), came the Patent Office Library. It opened on the 5th March, 1855. Its formal title was ‘The Library of the Great Seal Patent Office’. To be clear, there were patents and records of them before 1852, managed by Court of Chancery, but the nucleus of the library were 388 books from Bennet Woodcroft, the Superintendent of Specifications and Indexes, and 707 books from Richard Prosser, an engineer closely associated with the Act.
The site was on 25 Southampton Buildings, off Chancery Lane. A site it would occupy in various forms and alterations until the 1990s. In 1891, due in part to an increase in the number of visitors to the Library, plans were drawn up to rebuild the entire site. This was undertaken in stages between 1893 and 1912, with the Library moving to temporary accommodation in 1898. A full library service was maintained during this time. The new Patent Office Library was designed in the cathedral style of library architecture by Sir John Taylor.
War and Post-war
The Library continued to offer reading room services during the First World War, albeit with reduced hours and staffing levels. Visitor numbers predictably fell. And with the later onset of the Second World War, the library experienced a few near misses from incendiary bombs and a V1 flying bomb in 1944.
All during the war years, the need for a comprehensive scientific and technological network in the UK was apparent. And post-war, while widespread support was seen for a national library of science and technology, there was considerable debate on whether the British Museum or the Patent Office collections would form the basis of the new library. The debate was settled in 1959, when a Working Party on the issue recommended the new library should be based on both collections, and put under the control of the British Museum Trustees. And this, in hindsight, was what took it a step closer to the custodianship we have today.
In April 1966, the Patent Office Library formally transferred from the control of the Board of trade to the British Museum and became the National Reference Library of Science and Invention, (NRLSI Holborn division). In the late 1960s it was decided that there was a need to create better links between the UK’s major lending and reference libraries. To that end, the National Libraries Committee was formed in 1967, which recommend the creation of a national library system in 1969.
The British Library is founded
And so, the British Library was created on the 1st July 1973 as a result of the British Library Act which was enacted in 1972. Under the Act the following institutions were administratively combined to form the British Library: the library departments of the British Museum (including the NRLSI), the National Central Library, and the National Lending Library for Science and Technology.
The NRLSI was renamed the Science Reference Library upon joining the British Library and then in 1985 it was restructured to become the reference arm of the Science Technology and Industry Division (being renamed the Science Reference and Information Service (SRIS) in the process).
The next most significant turning point was the opening of the St Pancras site of the British Library and the rehousing of the patent collection. The collection had its own floor (level 2 where the Newsroom currently is). But it wasn’t until 2006 that the Business & IP Centre as we know it today was formally opened. It was a unique opportunity to merge two distinct, but related collections; business & intellectual property under one umbrella. And so came a physical alteration to the space that included meeting rooms and the well-used networking area space.
All this was with an aim to offer a comprehensive range of resources, workshops events and services to support small businesses from the first spark of inspiration to forming and growing their business. Inspired by how the New York Public utilised its Science, Industry and Business collection it was a model that resembles how the Centre operates today at the British Library and now across a national network of over 20 Business & IP Centres.
But today, there is a very special merger that’s not only about business and intellectual property. It’s connecting the past with the present. Our current intellectual property advice and expertise would likely not exist were it not for the historic patent collection. So as we look ahead to what a tumultuous 21st century could bring, it’s somehow reassuring that the firm anchor of the past will continue to guide the innovators, problem solvers and entrepreneurs of the future.
Co-written by Jeremy O’Hare Research and Business Development Manager at the BIPC and Steven Campion, Subject Librarian at the British Library