What do you do with 8 million books? Build a shelf 153 miles long

Education Editor,Richard Garner
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:44

Viewed from the outside, it could be any old warehouse in the country.

Inside, though, it has the equivalent of 153 miles of storage space to store more than eight million books which form the bulk of the stock of arguably the country's most famous library.

Welcome to the new home for books owned by Oxford University's Bodleian Library, which has found that its historic entitlement to a copy of every volume published in the UK had led to it running out of storage space.

Desperate times led to desperate measures and – for the past few years – part of its mammoth collection has been housed in a former salt mine in Cheshire. This week though, a solution is being unveiled in the form of a giant £26m warehouse in South Marston, near Swindon. The vast structure has the capacity to keep pace with the demand for shelf space for at least 20 years.

Over the course of the next 12 months, nearly six million books as well as more than 1.2 million maps will be transferred from Oxford to the Book Storage Facility (BSF) in the biggest move in the history of the library.

The university has chosen books that are not often requested to be stored at the unit. Most of its more popular items and the more historic tomes that it holds – including the four original manuscripts of the 13th-century Magna Carta treaty – will be retained in Oxford.

"The BSF will prove a long-awaited solution to the space problem that has long challenged the Bodleian," said its head librarian Dr Sarah Thomas. "We have been running out of space since the 1970s and the situation has become increasingly desperate in the last few years."

The university expects there will be about 200,000 requests for items stored in the new BSF every year. However, every student is being given a promise that – if they order a book by 10am – they will receive it in Oxford by 3pm the next day.

The requested volumes will be retrieved by hand by staff using fork-lift trucks and then sent by van to Oxford on board a twice-daily service. Other items will be scanned and sent straight to the recipients' computers electronically.

Dr Thomas added that it was important to preserve all the books "so that future generations will have access to the recorded information of the past".

"Now we can look to the future with confidence that we are preserving one of the world's most complete records of the written word in state-of-the-art secure archival conditions," she added.

The 153 miles of storage space includes 11 metre-high racks on 31 narrow aisles, each of which are 71 metres long. There are a total of 3,224 bays with 95,000 shelf levels in the warehouse, as well as 600 map cabinets.

The floor area of the building is equivalent to 1.6 football pitches – although the total shelf surface area is 10 times that amount due to the high-density shelving.

Professor Andrew Hamilton, the university's vice-chancellor, said: "The importance of the Bodleian Libraries and their extraordinary collections cannot be overestimated."

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