The British Library is one of London’s most recognisable landmarks. This Grade I listed building comprised of brick and marble sits alongside St Pancras International Station and holds an incalculable number of treasures, including the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition diary, and a birthday card with the original lyrics to A Hard Day’s Night by The Beatles. But did you know that there’s a British Library North, found between York and Leeds and home to more than two thirds of the Library’s 170 million items?
If this is news to you, you’re not alone. I was stunned to discover that this extraordinary national cultural asset existed despite it being a part of Boston Spa’s infrastructure for nearly 60 years. “It was originally a World War Two munitions factory,” says Kenn Taylor, lead cultural producer North at The British Library North. “So that’s why it’s a long way out of the city [Leeds].”
After World War Two, it was decided that the country required a Science and Technology Lending Library, and Boston Spa was the chosen location. “This was slightly before motorways,” Taylor says. “So [the site] is quite geographically central to the whole of the UK.” The Boston Spa site was then expanded and merged with the British Library.
Spread across an enormous 44-acre campus, British Library North consists of, among other things, an automated storage operation, a Reading Room where any of the seven million items in the Document Supply collections can be consulted, the UK Web Archive, and the national newspaper collection totalling some 750 million print pages. The mixture of buildings range from state-of-the-art fully automated facilities to the iconic 1970s Urquhart Building.
Another little known fact, at least outside of West Yorkshire, is that British Library North has been a major employer in the North of England since the early 1960s. “In Yorkshire, we employ nearly 600 people,” says Taylor. “It’s a large facility. A large portion of our digital work is based at Leeds Boston Spa and we have about 70 per cent of the collection there, so the biggest part of the collection is now in Yorkshire. All sorts of our work including managing the collection coming in is done there.”
Back in March 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced £25 million for a potential new construction to complement the British Library’s Boston Spa site as part of the West Yorkshire Devolution deal. A further £95 million has been made available for the British Library to invest in the renewal of the existing Northern premises.
Taylor says: “We are, hopefully, on this big path with the Government to completely renew the Boston Spa site in terms of investment including new facilities, new storage facilities and increased public access to make it so that more people can access the collection. That investment is focused on the North. Part of this is because we’re a copyright library and we also have things like the UK Web Archive and a lot of digital collections. We need miles and miles of shelving, so we need to expand that.”
Nevertheless, our libraries are in trouble. While this isn’t new information, consider that the decade of austerity saw 773 libraries close, and the COVID-19 pandemic has seen many of these spaces shutting their doors with little hope of re-opening in the future. We know from years of experience that when severe cuts need to be made, councils will be forced to pare back public services. In the past, this has included closing smaller libraries and reducing larger sites to a skeletal service. The funding allocated to British Library North, while welcome and much-needed, is unfortunately not the nationwide norm.
I understand that The British Library is the country’s national library and boasts access to the world’s most comprehensive research collection. But my more cynical side, the part that has witnessed the lack of Government support for arts and cultural organisations (particularly in the North) during coronavirus, wonders if the Chancellor would have been so generous to a bibliotheca based outside of the M25.
And so, what makes the Boston Spa site specifically a library of the North? Does the name simply refer to the building’s geographical location or does it serve to highlight and showcase the region in other ways?
“We talk about the British Library in the North because it’s where we are based,” says Taylor. “We employ a lot of people from the area and we do particular work locally. But we do see ourselves as one institution and our executives and work are split across both sites. We have an awful lot of books including illuminated manuscripts and records. But we also have a vast sound archive, which is the main sound archive for the UK. The British Library is different to a public library in terms of being a national collection and also being a copyright library. We automatically receive a copy of everything published in the UK and Ireland, including books and digital books. We are the [copyright library] for the whole of the UK.”
He continues: “We are a resource for the North of England and we do get people visiting the Reading Room from all across the North, but we want people to be more aware of it because we’re not in the city centre so people aren’t necessarily familiar with us. We want people to engage with [the library], particularly in Yorkshire where we are based, but also across the North and not just by visiting the Boston Spa site, but also engaging in events in central Leeds and Bradford.”
Taylor had only been in the job for a short while before COVID-19 struck back in March 2020. At the time of writing, Leeds was in Tier Three which means that British Library North has been forced to close its doors to the public and in-person events are no longer a possibility.
“It’s been difficult,” admits Taylor. “Lots of people rely on us in Boston Spa and in London to do their research and engage with our collections. And, of course, our materials get used by other universities and galleries so that’s caused challenges in terms of access and and distributing materials. But we have adapted, and my colleagues have been able to give research advice online.”
Like many arts and cultural organisations, British Library North has recognised the benefits of moving online. While the team “were always interested in digital provision”, COVID-19 has accelerated their plans. “Obviously, it has been an interesting year to work on this,” jokes Taylor. “We had to adjust rapidly.”
Going digital not only widens access to events, but also creates a bigger platform to showcase local talent.
“We have had feedback in our online event surveys from, for example, disabled people who’ve said they wouldn’t have necessarily been able to attend if it had been an in-person event. We’ve also been able to platform local artists from Yorkshire, not just in the region, but nationally and internationally. As a cultural producer, alongside our learning producer, I’m there to build up a cultural and learning programme in the North, focusing on Yorkshire because that’s where we are based, but we also want people to engage with what we’re doing in the wider North as well.”
“We’re famous for [cultural and learning programmes] in London, and we’ve always had national programmes as well, with public libraries for example, but we really want to build that up because we are doing all this really interesting work that people are unaware of.”
As we start a new year and with nationwide vaccinations gathering pace, where does Taylor see British Library North in 2021?
“We are hopeful. We want to move back to a more mixed model for our cultural programme in the North. We want to showcase exhibitions locally and we certainly want to do in-person events working with local artists as well as continuing our digital work.”
He adds: “I’m passionate about the North. It’s a distinct set of cultures in the British Isles. That’s why I like that we’re called British Library North. We are based in Yorkshire, but we are a resource for the whole of the North of England. The cultures in the North are rich, diverse and interesting and I’ve loved being able to work in different places to showcase what we can do.”
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
Main image: British Library North. Credit: British Library Board.
Part of Light Night Leeds, an annual free multi-arts and light festival, Faint Signals is a British Library commission with Yorkshire-based interactive arts studio Invisible Flock. For more information, click here.
Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights is a series of online events exploring how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights. Featuring women artists, writers and poets. For more information click here.