All the news that is fit to read… and much more

Yesterday I was fortunate to have a tour of The British Library Newspaper collection housed in Colindale in North London.

On the journey out to the further reaches of the Northern Line, I was trying to remember the last time I had visited. I think it must have been in the late 1980’s, when I was a fresh-faced Library School student. My main memory from that far off time was of a room full of middle-aged women steadfastly ironing newspapers. This was to ensure they were suitably flat prior to being microfilmed. I was amused to see that a few irons have survived through to present day as part of the digital scanning process.

It was a fascinating tour of the collection which consists of an almost complete set of British and Irish newspapers since 1840. In total the collection consists of 660,000 bound volumes and 370,000 reels of microfilm containing tens of millions of newspapers with 52,000 titles on 45 km of shelves.

Opening beautifully leather-bound sets of national and local papers dating back to the 1800’s gave a tangible sense of history. As is often the case it is the ephemeral aspects which now have as much interest as the lead stories of the day. For instance the content and style of the advertising is very revealing of the culture of the era.

In the secure room where the more valuable items in the collection are held, I was shown the The Mafeking Mail: Special Siege Slip published from 1 November 1899 to 15 June 1900. Due to paper shortages this was printed on whatever could be found at the time, including brown wrapping paper.

In the same room were some of the UK published comics which are now quite valuable. But, they also have to be protected from the kinds of obsessive collector who are prepared to risk prison in order to fill gaps in their collection.

The Sunday supplements section was something of a trip down memory lane for me. Years ago I used to produce a daily press cuttings service, taken from the daily quality newspapers (plus the Daily Mail and Express). One of the perks of the job was to have my pick of the Sunday supplements. After much research I settled on The Sunday Times and You magazines, both of whom had excellent in-depth articles written by some pretty heavyweight contributors.

The lease on the Colindale buildings is due to end in 2012, so the collection will be moving to St Pancras. But, will be mainly in microfilm and digital formats, with the hard copy being preserved in a new purpose-built low oxygen store in Boston Spa. The move will mean our customers will have access to another key information source in one place, instead of being told they need to schlep up to Colindale.

Newspapers and Comics held in The British Library

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