Report: CILIP Y&H visit to the British Library at Boston Spa, 26 August 2015

On the 26th August, CILIP Y&H held a visit to the British Library’s Boston Spa site. We had a fantastic turnout of 22 people, so we split into three groups, and each followed a slightly different trail round the buildings, to see the different stages of the document supply process.

I can’t explain everything I learned in a coherent manner (my colleagues have all had to suffer through me babbling about it), so here are five things I didn’t know before I went:

  1. A large proportion of the historic stock held in Boston Spa is not catalogued at all, as there is no longer enough funding to do back-cataloguing. Instead, they have switched to a ‘just in time’ model, so that when readers submit a speculative request, a member of staff will attempt to find and catalogue the item. Usually they’ve got the item somewhere, and the experience and knowledge of the collections that the staff have developed allows them to locate it.
  2. The legal deposit material held by the British Library can be requested by readers to use in a reading room, but cannot be loaned out, or copied by staff. This is because the material was provided free, so the British Library cannot make money from it, even just to recoup the cost of supply. For this reason, the BL purchases an extra copy of many items, and these go into the document supply collection.
  3. “Human-access” journals are classified by title and subject, using a system devised specifically for Boston Spa back when the site first opened. Books are classified by publication year, then in order of acquisition, which results in some very odd juxtapositions. As neither system has to allow for readers browsing (or messing things up), they’re extremely efficient, and staff can usually walk straight to the specific item required.
  4. When digitising materials, the BL’s mushroom-like scanners can capture many more dots per inch than a human eye can usually distinguish. But most of the images produced will only ever be viewed on some kind of screen, so the user won’t notice much difference between 300dpi and 1000dpi. It’s often better to produce a smaller, less detailed file which will load faster and cost less to store.
  5. The Additional Storage Building and Newspaper Storage Building, quite apart from having the least imaginative building names on the site, use an automated retrieval system that’s completely unique to the BL. In their voids, it’s very dark, and the machines move unnervingly fast along these narrow, towering aisles, making you feel like you’re in a massive cave, or a sci-fi film that doesn’t end well for humans…

I was extremely grateful to our fantastic guides, and also to everyone who came along. This was the first tour I had organised, in my new role as ‘Visits Coordinator’, and I was really anxious that it should go well! I think my favourite pieces of feedback were “Worth the five hour trip,” (Emma Green, who came up from Birmingham) and “Building 31 rocks.” (Carl Challinor, using the ASB’s other name).

Watch this space for details of more library tours and visits around the region!

Evelyn Webster, Visits Coordinator

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