“YOU can smell the old newspapers,” says Ben Sanderson, as a giant robotic crane zips smoothly down one of the towering aisles.
He’s right, you can. There’s a hint of that unmistakable, slightly musty smell that you get from old books and newspapers.
We are in the “storage void” of the British Library’s brand new National Newspaper Building which is being opened today at Boston Spa. It might sound a bit clinical, but this glorified warehouse – which now houses the nation’s newspaper collection – is an awesome sight and a triumph of ingenuity and technology. It reminds me of the giant warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark – only with a bit of sci-fi gadgetry thrown in.
The newspapers are stored in 20 metre high shelves and retrieved by robotic cranes operating in carefully monitored temperature-controlled conditions. The storage void itself holds a staggering 60 million copies – spanning more than three centuries right up to the present day – each of which has its own designated space.
Some of the newspapers are so old they would crumble if you touched them which is why such care and attention has gone into the storage area.
It won’t be open to the public and once we leave the lights are dimmed and oxygen levels are dropped to 14 per cent and humidity kept at a steady 55 per cent. These are the optimum conditions for storing newspapers and eliminate the risk of fire – you could strike a match in there and it wouldn’t light.
“Newspapers are uniquely fragile, they were produced to be read once and then thrown away, so the idea of keeping them even for 10 years, let alone two or three hundred, goes against the way they’re designed,” says Sanderson, head of press with the British Library.
The new £23m National Newspaper Building is one of the world’s most advanced library facilities and designed to safeguard this precious collection for the future.
Last year, the British Library spent six months moving the archive from its previous home in Colindale, north London, which involved 280,000 volumes of newspapers being ferried by fleets of lorries to its new home in West Yorkshire.
The Boston Spa site, once home to an armaments factory, covers more than 40 acres and is the northern arm of the British Library.
Formerly known as the National Lending Library for Science and Technology, it was opened by Lord Hailsham in 1962 and since then has steadily grown to the point where it’s now one of the biggest local employers in the area – with about 700 people working here.
With the site just a stone’s throw from the A1 and more or less in the centre of the country, it was seen as the ideal location to house the nation’s newspaper collection, enabling items to be loaned out across the country within 24 hours.
The archive’s former home dates back to the 1930s and, although it was purpose-built at the time, it had served its purpose – highlighting the difficulty of storing newspapers.
“They have always been a massive challenge in terms of storage because they’re big and they’re bulky. But we still receive 1,200 titles a week – every local, regional and national newspaper,” says Sanderson.
The long term aim of the British Library (BL) is to make as much of the material as possible available for people to view online and it has already started a project to digitise 40 million newspaper pages.
So far around 10 million pages have been digitised, in partnership with DC Thomson Family History. This sounds a lot, but when you think that the total number of pages is around 750 million then you get an idea of the sheer volume of material we’re talking about.
People have to pay to access these pages online at the British Newspaper Archive, unless they go to the reading rooms at the British Library in which case they can view them free of charge.
“They key role of this building is keeping the newspapers in good enough condition so that in the medium term they can continue to be used in the reading rooms. In the long run we want to get as much digitised as possible. It would be fantastic to have the whole thing digitised but there’s no magic wand.”
However, the fact we have this unique treasure trove is something worth shouting about. “It’s the heart of the nation’s memory,” says Phil Spence, the British Library’s chief operating officer. “We are a real newspaper-reading nation, over 90 per cent of people read a newspaper every week which is wonderful.”
He believes it’s fitting that the collection has been rehoused on our doorstep. “It’s great to have this here in Yorkshire which has always had a high pedigree in journalism,” he says.
It’s already used by all kinds of people and Spence hopes this will continue. “For a lot of people this is the ‘go to’ place to find out about your ancestors, but it’s also great for journalists who want to go back and look at stories, we have police and lawyers who come in, so it really is a vast resource.”
Although there are physical copies of newspapers covering historic events ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to the Second World War, many are in a fragile state. “Over time, this building will be used less the more we digitise. Most of the access of newspapers, more than 60 per cent of research requests, is done through microfilm and that figure will rise,” he says.
“So if there’s a digital, or a microfilm copy that’s what people will see. But if there isn’t one then we will provide the print copy of a particular edition.”
The whole Government-funded project, which also includes two new reading rooms at Boston Spa and London, cost £33m and has taken around seven years in total. It’s a lot of money but Spence believes it is worth the expense. “We’re very lucky to have this complete collection of iconic newspapers, like The Yorkshire Post.
“There’s everything from quite obscure titles that have died out now, through to new ones, particularly free sheets, that we’re starting to see.”
The scale of this collection is remarkable, but Sanderson believes it is the content of the newspapers that makes them so special. “By the 19th century they became the national conversation and every town would have several newspapers and they tell us what life was like at a particular moment in time,” he says.
“Newspapers photograph ordinary people and quote ordinary people, and they cover everything from world events to local sports results. Everyone has appeared in a newspaper at some point or in some way, and newspapers really bring people to life in a way that you don’t get with census records.”
The Reading Room at the Boston Spa site is available for the public to use. The best way to do this is to register online for a reader pass at www.bl.uk or call 01937 546060.