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Collections on the move: Visiting the British Library at Boston Spa

11 Oct 2019

Jo Clarke

In 2017, we moved 5 km of books and journals to off-site storage as part of the Royal College of Surgeons redevelopment project. Our rare books were sent to the National Archives at Kew for secure storage, where they are visited regularly by our Collections Manager. The rest of the collection was cleaned and packed up into very large boxes and ‘shipped’ out to the British Library in Boston Spa.

Boston Spa 1: Jo & Hilary

Over the years I routinely went down to the dimly lit storage basements of the RCS building to locate requested books. It’s only now that all the books are off site in storage that I realise how much pleasure I took from locating and handing over these books from our extraordinary collection to a delighted user. My first visit to the British Library at Boston Spa was for a tour of the site and its facilities. When I saw our books in a specially sectioned-off area, I have to admit it was emotional.

Boston Spa 2: sign

Boston Spa 3: bookcases

Often mistaken for the nearby prison, the British Library at Boston Spa is an extraordinary site. It was once a WWII Royal Ordnance munition factory. Established by the British Library in 1973, it’s a mixture of purpose-built modern buildings nestled alongside WWII built huts, neatly-cut grass and trees and concreted pathways. The site has a newly-refurbished reading room for researchers and visitors; it also runs its document supply service from here. Called the British Library Document Supply Service (BLDSS), it holds 87.5 million items, including 296,000 international journal titles, 400,000 conference proceedings, 3 million monographs, 5 million official publications, and 500,000 UK and North American theses and dissertations.

Boston Spa 4: British Library - Thorp Arch. One of the British Libraries. This one is situated on an industrial estate between Wetherby & Tadcaster.

“British Library - Thorp Arch.” © DS Pugh. From Geograph Britain & Ireland, used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It is also the main store for the British Library’s ‘low use’ items, and for the Newspaper library. Both of these collections are held in buildings where items are retrieved by “Kingly” robots (video) before being handled by the staff. The sound of the robotic arms at work, the relative darkness and the red warning lights warning of the low oxygen levels are very atmospheric. The view in these stores is extraordinary and reminded me of a film set version of a space station.

Boston Spa 5: warning light

Boston Spa 6: robot store

The Library’s large print journal collection was moved en masse to Boston Spa. One of the major projects for the Library is to prepare the journal collections for their return to the newly-renovated Library space in 2020. All the journal titles shelved in this space will need to be bound (taking individual journal issues and binding them in a hardback cover) in colour-coordinated hardback bindings with relevant gold lettering on the spine. When the project is complete and the collections returned, in my opinion, it is going to look truly glorious. This project has been the reason for my visits to Boston Spa.

It is a lot of work to prepare the journals for binding. All the issues from a journal title for a given year are located and then the exact details relating to the journal are written (by hand) onto triplicated forms. The journals are then packed into boxes for collection by the binding company.

Boston Spa 7: binding preparation

Over the past year, we have prepared and checked over 400 volumes of journal titles, with more planned for next year. I returned to the British Library at Boston Spa in May, with the Collections Manager (who has become a regular visitor to Boston Spa checking in on our collections and solving various catalogue-related conundrums). We spent two busy days working through the newly-bound volumes that had been returned by the binding company, Riley Dunn & Wilson. On a very simple level, this means holding the bound journal and giving it a gentle shake to make sure the binding holds. Then, flicking through the page numbers to make sure they run in order and checking the details on the spine. Hoping that I had spelt the word “British” or “Surgeon” correctly on the triplicate form. It is very satisfying to successfully complete this phase of the binding project and I look forward to seeing the journals returned to Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 2020, ready for members and fellows to use. The smart new bindings will ensure these runs of journals are protected for future generations of Library users.

Jo Clarke, Library Administrator

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