In 1962, as part of a drive to popularise the study of history and foster a public sense of perspective on events of recent years, the BBC aired a series of six primetime broadcasts on Network 3. They were accompanied by a booklet entitled The Historian at Work by renowned British historian V. H. Galbraith (subsequently adapted to form the first part of his An Introduction to the Study of History (1)), published in order to
provide a background for a series of broadcasts in which practising historians describe a number of actual projects in the field of national and local history, explaining what they set out to find, how they found it, and the special problems and sources of information associated with their inquiry. Among the general questions to be considered are the different problems involved in writing medieval and modern biography, the need for the re-interpretation of well-known themes, the place of the amateur historian and the development of new techniques and new areas of investigation, such as industrial archaeology.(2)
And so British popular history, from Time Watch to Time Team, was born.
A national library would be able to play a key role in fostering such a revolution in identity and in 1972 just such a thing was finally legislated for by Parliament. Its roots lay in the report of the National Libraries Committee,(3) chaired by Lord Dainton, issued in 1969 which led to a White Paper in 1971 (4) recommending a national library for the UK ('the British Library').
This had been a long time coming. One of its oldest foundation collections was that of Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), a prominent parliamentarian and, along with Archbishop Matthew Parker, the saviour of many of England's early historical materials. Cotton's interest in preserving them stemmed from his belief that therein lay the origins of parliamentary democracy and of an independent tradition for the Church in, and of, England. In salvaging what they could of Britain's pre-Reformation monastic libraries such collectors played a pivotal role in preserving medieval and early modern literary and archival sources.
Cotton's heirs bequeathed his collection to the nation in the hope of establishing a more centralised resource, but the expense involved made it more convenient to put it into store in Ashburnham House in Westminster. The fire that broke out there in 1731, devouring many treasures and damaging others, precipitated action – hastened by the further purchase on preferential terms of the libraries of the Earls of Oxford (the Harley Collection), and of physician royal Sir Hans Sloane.
And so, in 1753, the British Museum was born, with a spectacular library at its core. Other collections, notably the King's Library assembled by George III, were added and Panizzi's great Round Reading Room opened in 1857 introducing a revolution in library design and organisation of a like that had not been seen since Ptolemy's Cage of the Muses in ancient Alexandria. There many generations of historians and makers of history laboured (famous readers such as Lenin, whose reader's pass was issued under the pseudonym Jacob Richter, are often the subject of public enquiry and readers' tickets frequently appear among personal papers, indicating the range of people who have used the Library's resources) and there Marxist history was constructed by Marx and Engels, making it a place of pilgrimage still.
In his listing of key repositories, Galbraith had applauded the British Museum Library as 'probably the largest and certainly the most important single collection in the country'.(5) This certainly became the case in 1973 when, in response to the British Library Act of the year before, numerous scattered repositories were brought together.
These included the British Museum Library – which incorporated the National Reference Library of Science and Invention (the Patent Office Library) and the Newspaper Library (housed at Colindale) – the National Central Library (founded in 1916 as the Central Library for Students and financed by grants from the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust to lend books for adult education) and the National Lending Library for Science and Technology (the centre for interlibrary loans based at Boston Spa, Yorks.).
Over the next decade these were joined by the British National Bibliography, the Office for Scientific and Technical Information, the India Office Library and Records, the National Philatelic Collection and the British Institute of Recorded Sound. 1998 saw the opening of the British Library's flagship London building at St Pancras, designed by Sir Colin St John Wilson, where most of these collections were finally brought together, with the Document Supply Centre remaining at Boston Spa.
To quote Galbraith again
We still cannot write history from records alone, which disguise the feelings and thoughts both of their makers and their time. Still less can we put our sole trust in histories and chronicles which though rarely quite wrong are never quite right. The two forms of evidence, which at first sight often conflict, have somehow to be reconciled by the historian. The historian's chief concern is, then, with the original and contemporary sources.(6)
This view of history, so characteristic of the pioneering work then being undertaken at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) in the University of London, reflected a bureaucratic tendency in Europe to separate repositories of official documents from those containing other types of historical material. In England the records of government had been gathered together into the Public Record Office (PRO) – now The National Archives (TNA) – in 1838, leaving private papers to the British Museum Library. Scotland and Wales also received national libraries of their own, born of earlier archival repositories, in 1925 and 1907 respectively.
Local authorities were left with responsibility for local records, in a somewhat haphazard way, and clarifying the whereabouts of a multitude of private and institutional collections still fell to the Historical Manuscripts Commission (HMC) and the National Register of Archives (NRA), established in 1869 and 1945 respectively.
Galbraith's scepticism concerning the value of more literary sources, their subjective creativity occluding, in his view, the quest for objective historical 'truth', has now, thankfully, been superseded by a much wider view of the composite nature of such sources, extending even beyond the lure of literature into such seductive areas as the visual arts, personal correspondence and marketing data. It is impossible to imagine the 'sexier' areas of historical studies today – such as gender studies, queer theory, cultural memory and book history – being possible without recourse to an integrated resource as wide-ranging as the British Library.
Texts have always underpinned the British sense of history and of national identity. The historical sources preserved at the British Library range from classical papyri to GIS mapping and born-digital archives and embrace all world cultures. Its historical icons include the first surviving charter to have been written in Anglo-Saxon England, two of the four earliest copies of Magna Carta (and the Articles of the Barons – the document actually placed in front of King John at Runnymede), George III's draft declaration against his rebellious American subjects, the Log Book of the Victory and Scott's Antarctic diary.
The papers of figures such as John Leland, John Evelyn, Captain James Cook, William Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli, Florence Nightingale, Charles Babbage, Francis Place, Marie Stopes, T. E. Lawrence and Alexander Fleming inhabit its shelves alongside the chronicles of the Isle of Man, of William of Malmesbury, Matthew Paris and Jean Creton, the cartularies of many an abbey, Leland's Itinerary, Dugdale's Monasticon Anglicanum and the Paston Letters.
The Early Printed Collections (including, to name only one source among many, the Thomason Collection of Civil War tracts), Newspapers, Maps, Official Publications and India Office Records likewise offer rich historical data, including much that is invaluable for the study of international, national, local and family history.
It is perhaps ironic that the papers of modern historians do not feature within the British Library collections, but tend instead to be held in the archives of the universities within which they worked, although papers of earlier eminent historians are to be found there, including those of Edward Gibbon, William Camden, George Boase, Andrea Cornaro, Pietro De Nores, George Grote, Robert Orme, Patrick Forbes, James Ware, Philip Morant, Thomas Carte, Jacques Auguste de Thou, Richard Gough, Thomas Blore, James Mackintosh, Henry Hallam, Sharon Turner, Mikhail Ivanovich Rostovtsev, Eva Germaine Rimington Taylor, Lionel Cecil Jane, David Hume, Allan Fea and James Alexander Williamson.
There is also an active acquisition policy in respect of the papers of modern scientists (such as Bill Hamilton, Donald Michie, Anne McLaren and John Maynard Smith), providing primary research resources for future investigation in the history of science.
The Library's own staff members have also participated frequently in teaching, from school to senior research level, and recent examples in the field of historical studies have included the University of London and the University of Sheffield. They are frequently called upon to participate in conferences, to publish articles in learned journals and the media and to contribute to publications such as the Cambridge History of the Book in Britain (7) and the new Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography.
The staff ranks have produced professors of palaeography, freemasonry studies and medieval manuscript studies and include fellows of the Royal Historical Society (RHS), the British Academy (BA) and the Society of Antiquaries (SoA). Publications by curators are recorded under staff research profiles on the British Library website. Collaborations have been mounted in recent years with numerous Arts and Humanities Research Board/Council (AHRB/AHRC) and European Social Fund (ESF) funded projects.
The Library also hosts a number of important research initiatives. One such is the International Dunhuang Project, an international collaboration formed in 1994 to conserve, catalogue, digitise and research ancient Buddhist texts and artefacts excavated along the Silk Road. The Eccles Centre for American Studies was founded by David and Mary Eccles in 1991 to promote North American materials and to support American Studies in schools and universities. They chose to base it at the British Library which houses the foremost collection of American books, manuscripts, journals, newspapers and sound recordings outside the United States.
The Library has also recently forged alliances with funding and research councils, enabling it to work with the higher education sector to develop collection-led research and to pool staff expertise to maximum effect. The Library's Higher Education Team fosters such relationships and has initiated National Subject Training Days which introduce postgraduate students to the range of resources, from oral history to maps, prints and drawings, that are available to them in their research careers, while the Learning Team and the Regional and Libraries Programme help to stimulate public interest in history among school and lifelong learner constituencies.
The enhanced exhibition facilities in the St Pancras building allow many key treasures, such as Magna Carta, to be displayed free of charge and for major exhibitions to be staged. These have included: Treasures from the Ark; Painted Labyrinth – the World of the Lindisfarne Gospels; The Silk Road; Front Page – Celebrating 100 years of the British newspaper 1906–2006; Sacred; Breaking the Rules – Avant Garde; and the forthcoming Ramayana and Taking Liberties – The Struggle for British Freedoms and Rights, the latter devoted to the history of civil liberties.
The Library's events programme has included lectures and discussions by leading public figures, including historians, and its conference centre has hosted many academic colloquia. Furthermore, British Library Publications serves as a distinctive publishing house devoted to exploring the collections via a multi-tiered programme which ranges from popular guides to individual treasures (such as The World of the Luttrell Psalter)(8) to the British Academy's Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues.(9)
The digital environment offers exciting scope for enhancing access to rare materials and for delivering secondary sources, in book and serial form, more efficiently. The Library's first 'website' was launched in 1994 as a 'Gopher', delivering plain-text files accessed by selecting topics from menus or via a keyword index and transferred to the web in 1995. A fully redesigned site was launched in 2001 and use by the research community and the general public rapidly accelerated, with the average number of page requests per day trebling between 1998 and 2004.
The unique manuscript of Beowulf, dating to c.1000, was one of the Library's first emissaries into cyberspace during the 1990s and in 1994 British Library Publications published Medieval Realms, Britain 1066–1500 (10) the first of several interactive CD-Rom for schools designed to support the National Curriculum in History. These and more recent learning packages, such as the Campaign for Abolition, Trading Places, Front Page and Citizenship, can be accessed online.
Some of the Sound Archive's oral history projects, including Voices of the Holocaust, Artists' Lives and Food Stories have also been published on CD-Rom and online. Major treasures, such as the Diamond Sutra, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Luttrell Psalter, Sultan Baybar's Qur'an, the Leonardo Codex and the William Blake Notebook have been digitised in 'Turning the Pages' technology and are made available free of charge online and in the Library's Treasures Gallery, while Collect Britain gathers together a host of digitally reproduced sources for British history.
Recent advanced digital research projects have included Christine de Pisan's Collected Works, the Gutenberg Bible and the Codex Sinaiticus Projects. Mass digitisation projects for older newspapers include the one million pages of the Burney Collection of Early English Newspapers, and two million pages of 19th-century UK newspapers, with a further one million pages currently in production. The online files of these newspaper texts are available in all British Library reading rooms, and wider availability is planned. Meanwhile, the Library's Conservation and Preservation Department and the AHRC-funded Digital Lives Project are working to ensure that archives which include born-digital materials can be effectively curated and preserved in the future.
The Library is, in addition, currently developing a content strategy across the range of arts and humanities and social science disciplines which uses the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) structure as a framework. This includes the formation of content teams for each of the research areas. The size of the History Team reflects the importance, in one way or another, of a greater part of the Library's collections for the study and writing of history.
The process of cataloguing the collections continues apace in the electronic environment, perpetuating a tradition of in-house research that commenced with catalogues authored by scholars such as Panizzi, Madden, Miller, Warner, Gilson, Thompson, Binyon, Flower and Skeat. In the past such scholar-curators tended to focus upon particular areas of the collections or upon language or subject specialisms, creating a multiplicity of separate catalogues.
Their modern counterparts are still often experts in their fields and their work includes specific cataloguing projects, such as the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) which provides bibliographic records for all known British printed material before 1801 – an invaluable resource for the historian, now available free of charge online – and the AHRC/Getty-funded Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Such projects are designed to be compatible with the collective curatorial task of creating a single, online catalogue of archival and manuscript holdings Library-wide (the Integrated Library System or ILS) which will in due course be made fully cross-searchable with the existing Integrated Catalogue of printed materials.
Continuing a tradition of photographic reproduction that commenced with the Palaeographical Society: Facsimiles of Ancient Manuscripts (11) and Facsimiles of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts,(12) the Library's online catalogues are now increasingly accompanied by digital images, rendering sources ever more accessible remotely and stimulating research into lesser-known areas of the collections.
The British Library of today – and tomorrow – continues to participate actively in the making and writing of history, as it fulfils its traditional role as the repository of our collective memory.
For the British Library's catalogues and other resources, see http://www.bl.uk.
C. Alston, The British Library: Past, Present, Future (London, 1989).
Barker, Treasures of the British Library (London, 1988).
H. Galbraith, The Historian at Work (London, 1962).
H. Galbraith, An Introduction to the Study of History (London, 1964).
Hallam and A. Prescott, The British Inheritance (London, 1999).
R. Harris, A History of the British Museum Library, 1753–1973 (London, 1998).
Miller, That Noble Cabinet (Athens, O., 1974).
Prescott, English Historical Documents (London, 1988).
G. C. Tite, The Library of Sir Robert Cotton, Panizzi Lectures 1993 (London, 1994).
Michelle P. Brown is Professor of Medieval Manuscript Studies at the Institute of English Studies, University of London, and was formerly Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library.