Sunday, November 25, 2007

This warehouse is being built to house the books and journals that no one
wants. With the British Library's UK collection growing at a rate of
12.5km of shelf space a year, is the notion of the copyright library really sustainable?

Stuart Jeffries reports in the Weekend Guardian .

We used to build cathedrals.
Now we build warehouses. One of the most extraordinary examples of our
costly new dalliance with warehouse technology is rising on an industrial
estate in West Yorkshire. As I drive past Leeds United's training ground
and past HM Prison Wealstun, an epic grey corrugated temple looms
ominously. It dominates the landscape around Boston Spa, just as Ely
Cathedral commands the Fens or as Chartres Cathedral surmounts the
countryside for miles around. All it needs is a spire.

The warehouse is extraordinary because, unlike all those monstrous Tesco and
Amazon depositories that litter the fringes of the motorways of the
Midlands, it is being meticulously constructed to house things that no
one wants. When it is complete next year, this warehouse will be
state-of-the-art, containing 262 linear kilometres of high-density, fully
automated storage in a low-oxygen environment. It will house books,
journals and magazines that many of us have forgotten about or have never
heard of in the first place.

Chris Fletcher, the warehouse's project manager for the past 11 months, is extremely proud of
it. "Normal atmosphere consists 20% oxygen. This will regulate
oxygen in the warehouse to between 15.8 and 16.2%, with a mean of 16%,
which will ensure minimal damage to the books in store. The
air-conditioning will ensure 52.5% humidity plus or minus 5%. It will
ensure a steady state temperature. The whole building will be sealed to
protect the contents. It will," he says puffing his chest a little, "comply
with British Standard 5454. Amazing, isn't it?"

It certainly is. We're standing in hard hats and wellies inside the warehouse, which at present
is a huge shell. It reminds me of visiting an empty power station in
south London before they started filling it with art galleries and
calling it Tate Modern: the scale induces awe. This will be the £20
million new depository at the British Library's Yorkshire complex in
Boston Spa near Leeds. It is where, before this century reaches its
teens, copies of books spared a quick death at the pulping plant - thanks
to the grace of the provisions of the 1911 Copyright Act and later
government legislation - will go to serve their life sentences in a
secure environment. "We need this warehouse," says Steve
Morris, the British Library's head of finance, "not just because it
is cheaper than existing rented warehouses we use in London, but also
because we are statutorily obliged to house more and more material. Seven
million items, many of them books, will go there. The death of the book
has been grossly exaggerated, you see."

Indeed, the problem for our great libraries is that books won't stop coming. The British
Library's UK national collection is currently expanding at the rate of
12.5 kilometres of shelf space a year, and somewhere has to be found to
put it all. In 1911, the notion of the copyright library was born, when
Parliament decided that the British Library along with five others in
Great Britain and Ireland would be entitled to receive a free copy of
every item published.

But, while the other five - the Bodleian at Oxford,
Cambridge University Library, Trinity College Library in Dublin, and the
National Libraries of Scotland and Wales - have a right to claim any book
published in the UK, in practice not all are. Cambridge University
Library, for example, estimates that only between 70% and 80% of
everything published in the UK are deposited there (they can also request
anything within one year of publication). By contrast, the British
Library must receive a copy of everything published in the UK each year.

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