Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

10 July 2023

50 facts about the British Library

 By Elliot Sinclair, Web Editor

Have you heard about our book hospital in the basements or the time Lenin tried to get a Reader Pass? To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the British Library, here are 50 less-known facts about us – from our buildings and collections, to what goes on behind the scenes.

You’ll never see us in the same way again… 

3D model of the Library
3D model of the Library
  1. 10 million bricks (all individually handmade) were used for the construction of our London building.

  2. The building looks like a ship if viewed from the right angle. Architect Sir Colin St. John Wilson was formerly a naval lieutenant, and his nautical influences are dotted all around the building. Look at the 3D model of the building on the Upper Ground Floor and you’ll see what we mean.

  3. You may be surprised to know that the majority of our collection is not in fact stored in our London site. 70% of it is housed in our other site in Yorkshire.

  4. Our collections include over 170 million items from almost every language and faith group.

  5. In our collections you can find: 13.5 million printed books and e-books; 310,000 manuscript volumes; 60 million patents; 60 million newspapers; over 4 million maps; over 260,000 journal titles; 7 million sound recordings; 8 million stamps, and over 500 terabytes of preserved data in our UK Web Archive.

  6. Our oldest item is an Egyptian stela from 3,600 years ago, containing a hymn to the god of the underworld Osiris, written in hieroglyphics.

  7. Also in our collections you’ll find a postage stamp that talks.

  8. The leather wrappings of the handrails inside the lifts, on doors and around the Library on our London site are inspired by bookbindings.

    Our bookbinding-inspired handrails

  9. Ever wondered about why there’s a large glass tower of books right in the centre of our London building? This is the King’s Library, which houses the books collected by King George III (reigned 1760–1820). George IV insisted that his father’s collection should be displayed ‘entire, and separate from the rest of the Library… in a repository to be appropriated exclusively for that purpose’.

    Kings Tower
    King's Tower

  10. Our digital collections amount to over 1 petabyte – equivalent to almost 3.5 years of non-stop HD-quality video footage.

  11. If someone read one book a day from the King’s Library, it would take them 219 years to read everything in the collection.
  1. In our collections we have an Edwardian equivalent to today’s GPS, used for navigating the roads while driving.

    A set of maps and lenses
    The Micro Motor Map – a forerunner to today’s GPS
  1. Our physical collections occupy over 746km of total shelving – equivalent to the distance from London to Aberdeen.

  2. Every weekday a lorry transports more than 1,000 collection items between our Yorkshire and London sites for Readers.

  3. If you see five items each day, it would take you over 80,000 years to see the whole of our collection.

  4. If you look carefully at our red bricks on our London building, you’ll notice smiley face curves etched into each of them. This is a result of gas escape during the heating process in the kiln which creates small cavities at the surfaces.

    The smiley-faced bricks
  1. Our King’s Library tower has a lookalike across the globe: check out Yale University's Beinecke Library.
  1. We acquire approximately 8km of new books each year.
  1. Our National Newspaper Building on our Yorkshire site uses robotic cranes to retrieve collection items.

  1. We have a board game in our collections that uses an actual London Underground map from 1908 – featuring stations no longer in use such as South Kentish Town.
  1. Our clock tower on our London site is partially inspired by WM Dudok's town hall in Hilversum, Netherlands, and is not merely decorative but also a ventilation shaft, serving to air the five levels of basement.
  1. While our London building is home to millions of books, in our stonework resides oysters, plants and snails – all millions of years old. Many of these fossils can be spotted in the floor of our Piazza. Why not go on a fossil hunt?

    Spot the snails trapped in the Hauteville limestone on our Piazza
  1. A lock of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s hair and his ashes can be found among our collections.
  1. If you look carefully at the installation of eight rocks on plinths on the Piazza of our London site, you’ll notice little human figures incised into each one. This sculpture was created by Antony Gormley (famous for Angel of the North).

    'Planets' art installation featuring stones with human features
    Art installation on the Piazza
  1. Our mysteriously-named Private Case contains erotic printed fiction and poetry from the late 17th to 20th centuries, often with saucy engraved illustrations.
  1. Our Reading Rooms have welcomed many famous people – both in recent times and historically. Even Lenin applied for a ‘Reader ticket’ to use our former Reading Room, adopting the pseudonym Jacob Richter to cover his tracks from the Russian authorities.
  1. On the approach to the escalators in the Entrance Hall are two empty plinths which are relics of where the original turnstiles into the Library once stood. Formerly, only those lucky enough to have a Reader’s Pass could enter past this point as the majority of the building was only accessible to researchers.
  1. We have a 2,000 year-old homework book from Egypt in our collections.

  1. It takes between 6–15 minutes for a collection item to reach the Reading Rooms after you’ve placed an order.
  1. Our network of airport-style conveyor belts can deliver up to 3,000 items a day to Readers.
  1. Due to the sheer number of new items we acquire each year, our books are not organised by subject area (sorry to all you library geeks out there, we don’t in fact use the Dewey Decimal System!) Instead, a different set of criteria is used based on the size of the publication, language, how niche it is and how often it is requested by Readers. Because of this, in the basements you’d be able to find a book about American football right next to one about the birds of Mongolia!
  1. Unusual titled books in our collection include: The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification (2006); Fish Who Answer the Telephone: And Other Studies in Experimental Biology (1937); What is a Cow? And Other Questions that might Occur to you when Walking the Thames Path (2000); The Art of Faking Exhibition Poultry (1934); How to Enjoy your Weeds (1973); The Giant Cabbage of the Channel Islands (1974); How to Get Fat (1865); Searching for Railway Telegraph Insulators (1982) and How to Avoid Work (1949).
  1. Our Yorkshire site has a surprising wartime history, sitting on what was once the Royal Ordnance Factory Thorp Arch, which produced explosives and other artillery equipment during World War II.
  1. We receive a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland through legal deposit. Last year we received over 500,000 printed and digital items and over 100 terabytes from the UK web domain.
  1. Jane Austen’s writing desk and spectacles sit among our collections.
  1. Beneath the main library in our London site are five levels of basement where the majority of the building’s collection items are stored. Reaching 24 metres below ground – the equivalent of an eight-storey building – the basements run as deep as the Victoria line, which runs alongside them.

    The 'Chiller Hall' in our basements
  1. Down in our basements is our salvage recovery area – a kind of book hospital – where conservators can assess any damage to collection items in the event of an emergency and decide what treatments are needed.
  1. If the building’s air condition system fails and our galleries go above the required temperatures, a backup cooling device is deployed which uses nine buckets of ice stored down in the basements.

    Ice buckets 2
    Ice buckets
  1. There are over 40 different types of shelving used across the basements to maximise use of storage space and provide the most appropriate housing for different types of items.
  1. The Plant Room in Basement 1 of our London site is the size of six international football pitches.
  1. In our collections we have the tuning fork that Beethoven used (which also passed into the hands of fellow composers Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams).
  1. Our most precious items are kept in special chambers, known as strongrooms, which automatically release a gas called Inergen (made up of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and argon) to extinguish flames without the need for water.
  1. We hold the earliest surviving dated piece of printing, the Diamond Sūtra, produced in the year 868AD.
  1. We welcome 1.6 million visitors through our door every year 
  1. Each year over 1.5 million items are consulted in our Reading Rooms.
  1. Our site in London is the largest UK public building constructed in the 20th century.
  1. The building sits on the site of an old rail goods yard. 
  1. In our collections you’ll find a miniature boat used for the transport of mail from a remote island on the western edge of Scotland between 1876 and 1930.

    St Kilda Mail Boat
    St Kilda mail boat
  1. Our London site is a Listed Building – in 2015 Sir Colin St John Wilson’s building was awarded Grade I listed status; along with the Lloyds Building, it’s one of the youngest buildings to achieve such status.
  1. We even have a recording of Florence Nightingale’s voice in our collections.