Site visit: British newspaper library

Bound volumes of newspapers  at British Library Photograph: Martin Argles

Photograph: Martin Argles

It’s traditional to send our trainee on a visit to the British newspaper library in Colindale, and I’d not been since I was one many moons ago, so I tagged along with Nina and our archivist when they visited last week.

The newspaper library is in the process of moving to Boston Spa, the British Library’s base in Yorkshire, and the transition is evident. Gone are the impressive cameras I remember, used for photographing newspaper pages for microfilm. Fragments of binding and aging newsprint litter the floor in the stacks (every bound volume has to be weighed and measured prior to the move north, and if they sweep up the dust, airborne particles could cause damage).

It was really interesting to hear about the move – as well as the northern base there’ll be a dedicated reading room at the British Library on Euston Road (although bound volumes will have to be ordered from Boston Spa). Fascinating, too, to see inside “the pen” where some of the more precious volumes are held, including (to my other half’s delight) volumes of Marvel comics from the 1970s and British counterparts from their heigh-day in the ’40s.

The newspaper library fulfills my romantic ideal of an archive – the musty smell of weathered paper, cracked spines of long-forgotten tomes like John Bull and The Cherokee Phoenix (an attempt at a reservation paper from the 1830s). I could happily get lost in the stacks.

Times have changed, space is short and there’s a pressing need to preserve old volumes (an ongoing programme of digitisation will ensure safer access to millions of pages of print, though 40m pages is only a small proportion of the overall collection). The move is clearly important to the continuing success of the newspaper archive. But I hope that some of the magic of Colindale will remain at the new facility at Boston Spa.

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