From the archive: British Library in London by Colin St John Wilson and MJ Long | Buildings | Architectural Review
To understand the Government’s intention of building as soon as possible the first phase of a 2,000,000 sq ft library at an overall cost of £164,000,000 on the old Somers Town rail depot site west of St Pancras Station, a number of historical facts need to be recalled. Since its inception in 1753, the British Museum has always been under pressure to expand: there has never been enough room to house all the collections. When the Grenville Library was acquired in 1847, its volumes had to be stacked on the floor of the manuscripts department. By 1850 readers numbered nearly 80 000, an all but fourfold increase since the start of Robert Smirke’s building in 1823. Sydney Smirke’s great reading room (1852-57) was able for a while to contain this phenomenal growth which reached 600,000 printed books by 1860, 1,500,000 by 1888 and, with the installation of sliding presses, 3,000,000 on 46 miles of shelving by 1910. An annual rate of 1 ¼ miles of additional shelving in 1950 has risen today to an annual two miles or a million books every seven years. No wonder there are people who advocate the dismemberment of the great central library and the development of smaller specialist libraries linked electronically. or direct communication by computer between the library and people’s homes. To which two arguments have so far proved conclusive, that to microfilm every document (the new British Library will have room for 25,000,000 books) would cost more than a new building and that primary sources, in which the British Library is uniquely rich, will always want to be studied at first hand.