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12 awesome things you probably didn't know about the British Library

Written by
Luke Abrahams

The London Literature Festival is in town. This wildly bookish event fills the South Bank with acclaimed authors (like the legend Margaret Atwood), poets, speakers and wordsmiths for a fortnight of scholarly talks and other fantastic wordy events. To mark this literary extravaganza, we thought we'd get to know a little bit more about one of the city's top bibliophile retreats, the British Library. This ginormous library in Euston is hands-down the undisputed king of them all. Here are 12 awesome things you probably didn't know about it. 

1. It's home to over 200 million items and counting


A photo posted by British Library (@britishlibrary) on

The library's collection includes:

- 60,000,000 patents

- 13,950,000 books

- 8,000,000 stamps

- 6,000,000 sound recordings

- 4,347,505 maps

- 1,607,885 music scores

- 824,101 serial titles 

- 351,116 manuscripts 

- 260,000 journal titles

The library also archives the UK's web domain. Last year, it collected 68 terabytes of web data – that's an estimated 2 billion web pages. It's all kept on 625km of shelves, which are spread over 14 mammoth floors – nine above ground and five below. 

They can't fit it all in London, so another library and storage facility was built in Boston Spa in West Yorkshire to house all the other awesome literary relics, including the UK National Newspaper collection (pictured below).

© Kippa Matthews

Here, 60 million newspapers, spanning three centuries are kept in really neat low-oxygen storage chambers. When a reader orders something, the librarians use these cool purpose-made robots to grab things as quickly as possible for researchers up and down the country. 

© Kippa Matthews


2. Its basement goes 24.5 metres below ground (that's the equivalent of an eight-storey building)

Paul Grundy

All the storage rooms at the British Library are kept under strict controlled environmental conditions. The bulk of it all is shared across four very cold double-tier basement levels. Millions of books, manuscripts, maps, stamps, drawings, postcards, audio recordings and images are carefully arranged and coded in special metallic pull-out bookcases.  

Paul Grundy

The most precious publications are stored in inert chambers of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and argon (to protect against any potential fires), because sprinkler system + medieval manuscript = total disaster. 

Whenever a reader requests something on the online reservation system, some lucky worker in storage grabs the ordered item, puts it into a barcoded red crate and carefully places it onto a series of conveyor belts and paternosters until it reaches a stressed-out student in one of the reading rooms. 

Paul Grundy

3.  If you looked at five items in the library every day, it would take you 80,000 years to see the entire collection

Paul Grundy

4. The King's Library tower houses books that were personally collected and acquired by King George III


A photo posted by ( on


Around 65,000 volumes of printed books and more than 19,000 pamphlets call this super-shiny glass-encased library their home.

From inside the King's Library/Tony Antoniou

The King's Library also holds the most significant ensemble of writings from the Enlightenment period in the land.

The books in here are so rare and so precious that they are protected by a special layer of UV filter glass (that's why your pics of it are so glaring), which combined with the ultra-cool environmental control system, helps maintain optimum light, temperature and humidity levels. 


A photo posted by British Library (@britishlibrary) on

Whilst not accessible to us normal folk, treasures of the King's Library include a copy of the Gutenberg Bible and Caxton's first edition of Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' (pictured below). If you really wanna see the gems in here, become a library member and request to see a few of these beauties for yourself in the 'Rare books and Manuscripts' reading room – you won't regret it. 

British Library


5. The library's Sir John Ritblat gallery displays some of the most important literary manuscripts, letters, religious texts and historical documents on the planet

Sir John Riblat Gallery, British Library

Everything on show here is at the mercy of the curators and the library's conservationists. Because of this, the manuscripts displayed constantly change. One minute you could be looking at the manuscript to Virginia Woolf's 'Mrs Dalloway' and the other, James Joyce's notes for 'Ulysses'. Impressive, huh? At the moment, you'll see things like:

Jane Austen's melancholy and last great novel, 'Persuasion'  

British Library

Oscar Wilde's trivial comedy, 'The Importance of Being Earnest' 

British Library

And Lewis Carroll's beautifully illustrated 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'  

British Library

You'll also get to see handwritten Beatles lyrics and a small stash of John Lennon's personal letters (this one's 'I remember a time when everyone I loved hated me')

Letter image © Yoko Ono, John Lennon

6. Other treasures include the recording of Nelson Mandela's Rivonia trial speech and The Times' first edition from 1788 

British Library

7. The oldest items held in the collection are 3000+ year-old ancient Chinese oracle bones

British Library

8. The Reading Rooms are used by almost 16,000 students, scholars and members of the public every day

Paul Grundy

9. Ten million bricks and 180,000 tonnes of concrete were used to construct the building

Tony Antoniou

10. There are lots of cool pieces of art scattered throughout the library 


A video posted by Luke Abrahams (@labrahams19891) on

11. Believe it or not, the St Pancras site of the British Library is only 18 years old. Before that, the majority of the collection was held inside the British Museum

12. It was the largest building constructed in the UK in the twentieth century 

Drawing by Colin St John Wilson, 1991

The London Literature Festival runs until October 16. Find more cool events happening in October.

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