Dismissed by some as tomorrow’s chip paper but indispensable to others as a first draft of history, nearly 400 years of newspapers will be available for perusal on Monday in the British Library’s new £33m reading room.
The Newsroom, offering more than 750m pages of newspapers and magazines and 4.8m archived websites, will be officially opened by the culture secretary, Sajid Javid.
A hi-tech reading room, the first at the British Library in St Pancras for more than 10 years, offers researchers free access to microfilm and digital newspaper collections dating back to the English civil war. Together with a purpose-built robotic storage facility in Boston Spa, West Yorkshire, it replaces the Colindale newspaper library in north London, which closed last November.
The collection’s oldest English-language newspaper title was published in Amsterdam in 1620 and covered news from Italy, Germany and Bohemia. The title, A Corrant out of Italy, Germany, etc, is still used by some newspapers including the Hexham Courant in Northumberland.
The reading room’s oldest still surviving newspaper is the Stamford Mercury, first published in 1713,though the earliest issue held by the British Library is from 22 May 1718 – earlier editions are available in facsimile form. It is still published today as the Rutland & Stamford Mercury.
The collection faced its greatest threat during the blitz. A direct hit on the library at Colindale resulted in the loss of 9,000 volumes of newspapers. Today, volumes still turn up during the continuing programme to digitise work that contains lumps of shrapnel.
It includes everything from every issue of the News of the World, to Oswald Mosley’s newspaper, The Blackshirt, published during the 1930s.
Such a wealth of material is regularly drawn on by authors, including Kate Summerscale, who researched her best-selling The Suspicions of Mr Whicher using the collection, and novelist Jake Arnott, who used it when writing The Long Firm to get a better feel for the 1960s setting of the novel.
The British Library chief executive, Roly Keating, said: “Newspapers are often described as the first draft of history – in fact, in many cases they are the raw material of history and very often the only record that exists of an event or an individual that otherwise would have been forgotten. The British Library’s newspaper collection is a vital part of the memory of the nation – recording every aspect of local, regional and national life, and continuing to grow at a rate of more than seven metres every week.
“The opening of the Newsroom means that news and newspapers are no longer the Cinderella of the library’s collections, but are now at the very heart of the British Library’s offering to researchers. By moving the collection out of Colindale and into the world-class storage facility at Boston Spa, we’re ensuring this vast, precious and incredibly fragile resource is available not just for today’s researchers, but also future generations.”
There are 40 digital microfilm viewers, 7.8m scanned pages of historic newspapers and more than 40,000 TV and radio news programmes, increasing at a rate of 60 hours every day across 22 news channels.
The fragile print collection’s new West Yorkshire home is temperature- and humidity-controlled so that the 60m issues of newspapers, most of which were produced on cheap, low-quality paper that was meant to be read once then thrown away, may stand a chance of lasting well into the future.
The facility, which is also a low-oxygen environment to cut the risk of fire, is off limits to people to help maintain the atmosphere.
The newspapers are stored in 20 metre high racks and fetched by robotic cranes that deliver them, via an airlock, to a staffed retrieval area.
When there is no digital or microfilm version of a newspaper, the aim is for print newspapers to be delivered to the St Pancras newsroom within 48 hours.
• This article was amended on 28 April 2014. Hexham is in Northumberland, not Cumbria. This has been corrected.
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