British Library Board (Power to Borrow) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:52 pm on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough 12:52 pm, 13th March 2020

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for drawing that to my attention. It seems a typically Gladstonian move. I would love to visit that library at some point; perhaps we should have a library exchange.

It should be a great source of pride for this country that the British Library is literally, by catalogue size, the largest library anywhere in the world. It currently holds between 170 million and 200 million items and, frankly, I love the uncertainty of that. I have often wondered, “How do you know if you have too many books?” I think if one is unable to number them except within a range of plus or minus 15 million, it is possible that one has too many books. That is slightly unfair on the British Library, because it knows how many books it has; the uncertainty comes from the fact that there are so many other things in there, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden already mentioned the gravestone and the possibility that the “Edstone” may reside there.

As well as 30,950,000 books, there are 824,101 serial titles, 351,116 manuscripts, 8,266,000 philatelic items or stamps, 4,347,000 cartographic items or maps, and 1.6 million music scores. As has been mentioned, the British Library grows its collection by 3 million items every year and currently requires 625 km of shelf space, which is growing by 12 km a year. To put that into context, that is enough for roughly three speeches by my hon. Friend Robert Courts—[Laughter.] In the virtual space, the library harvested over 70 terabytes of web content for the UK web archive in 2016. We are not sure at present how many of the 70 terabytes consist mainly of cat gifs, but we do know that the library is cataloguing everything with a .uk domain, so we are in a slightly meta position here in that, as we speak, our words are being catalogued by the very institution that we are discussing.

The British library also contains a huge amount of recorded music and sound, much of which is available on British Library Sounds. I will return to this point about digital content, but someone can go on to the site, as I did in preparation for this speech, and listen to Dinka songs from South Sudan, endangered Micronesian recordings, which are sort of like mid-1980s rave music, or someone from the Edwardian era singing “Seventeen come Sunday” on to a wax cylinder. It is difficult to think of a more consequential library in history than the British Library.