News | July 11, 2023

British Library Celebrates 50th Anniversary

Tony Antoniou

The British Library from the air

This month marks 50 years since the British Library began operations in July 1973. Born out of a vision to create a new kind of national institution which would encourage scientific and technological research, business, the arts and humanities, the Library came into existence in 1973 as a result of the British Library Act (1972), passed by Parliament the previous year. 

There will be a series of Pay-What-You-Can events to celebrate the 50th anniversary. The programme will comprise online and in-person events in London and Yorkshire throughout July, including: 

* Lively debate on the best writing of the last fifty years with Monica Ali, Roger McGough and David Nicholls as part of Lit, Laugh, Love at the Library (July 11)

* An Evening of Discovery and Illumination (July 13), which will showcase a selection of writers’ archives, manuscripts and rare books the Library has acquired over the last five years 

* Honouring some of the most loved figures in British literature, including Emily Brontë on July 20  and William Shakespeare on July 18 
Several existing organisations, including the British Museum Library, the National Central Library and the National Lending Library for Science and Technology, were brought together to create the British Library. Since 1973, the Library has built a vast and growing collection and has become one of the great libraries of the world, making the nation’s cultural and intellectual heritage available to everyone, for research, inspiration and enjoyment.

Among the estimated 170 million items the Library cares for are books, journals, newspapers, patents, maps, prints, manuscripts, stamps, photographs, 6.5 million sound recordings, 11.3 million digital publications of all kinds and over 20 billion pages of UK web content. The collection grows every day, supported by the Legal Deposit mandate to collect everything published in the UK, whether physical or digital, and the Library’s mission is to develop, preserve and provide access to the vast resource, for today’s users and far into the future.
In a special message to the Library to mark the anniversary, His Majesty King Charles III said: “Since its establishment, the British Library has become one of the great libraries of the world, treasured by all who use it. The British Library continues to reach millions of people through its display of extensive collections, Reading Rooms and network of partner libraries. I am pleased to see that The King’s Library remains to this day a working part of the national collection.”
Highlights since the British Library began operations in 1973 include:

  • Purchasing the St Cuthbert Gospel, a miraculously well-preserved 7th century manuscript that is the oldest European book to survive fully intact and therefore one of the world’s most important books, for £9m in 2012 following the Library’s largest and most successful fundraising campaign
  • Bringing the four original surviving Magna Carta manuscripts, cared for by the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral, together for the first time to mark the 800th anniversary of the issue of the Charter by King John in 1215
  • In 1982 the India Office Library and Records were transferred from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the British Library – these contained the entire archives of British India, from the foundation of the East India Company in 1600 to independence
  • Helping to digitise over eleven million images and 35,000 sound tracks in more than 90 countries since 2004 through the Endangered Archives Programme, which facilitates the digitisation of archives that are in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration

The Library recently published a new strategic vision, Knowledge Matters, which outlines the ways in which, as the UK’s national library, it will serve new and existing audiences over the next seven years, while adapting to the monumental changes that are already impacting both the knowledge industry and the wider world. 
Knowledge Matters underpins the renewal of the Library’s Boston Spa site in Yorkshire, to provide urgently needed extra space for a collection that grows by 8 kilometres of shelving each year, working towards a permanent new site in the city centre of Leeds, and expanding the iconic London campus at St Pancras.