One noteworthy absence from the many distinguished guests attending the recent opening of the extension to the National Library of Wales by the Queen in May 1996 was any representative of the British Library, although invitations had been issued. Some cynical observers wondered whether this was in any way related to the fact that the new building in Aberystwyth was opened on time and to budget in the same month as the publication of the report by the Comptroller and Auditor General cataloguing the succession of delays and disasters in the completion of the new British Library building at St Pancras (National Audit Office, 1996).

The two projects are not really comparable in scale however, for the new British Library will perhaps be the one truly great new British public building to be open and operational in time for the millennium. Yet the eventual com pletion of this project around the autumn of 1998 will hardly be a cause for celebration nor will it be seen as a mark of the confidence in which the British government and society generally places in its national library service. Whatever one thinks of Colin St John Wilson's new building, the sorry tale of inefficiency, ineptitude, and mis-management during the planning and completion of the project, have been the most notable feature of the press coverage of the library for the last six years, and will also probably continue to be so for many years to come. Unfortunately these problems will tend to overshadow any clear assessment of the merits or otherwise of the new building, and of its suitability as a national library for the twenty-first century. They will also tend to impact upon the reputations of all those directly involved in the project, irrespective of where the fault lies.

The technical failures and problems associated with the construction of the building have already been highlighted in an examination by the Committee of Public Accounts (1991) and an earlier report from the National Audit Office (1990), together with the latest and most damming report referred to above. These explain exactly how the original project has been severely curtailed, and yet has grown enormously in cost, and why the completion is now a decade behind schedule. Yet some of the wider problems, and the indecisiveness and failings in vision by various British governments were dealt with in Sir Anthony Kenny's 1994 pamphlet, published by the British Library. Taken together these documents will make an excellent case study on how not to plan and execute a new library service, and will represent a most striking contrast to the determination of the French government to complete the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. It is perhaps worth providing a brief summary of the main events in the prolonged and sad tale of the planning and construction of what ought to have been an object of pride for the whole library and information community of the UK.

In 1857, just over a century after the foundation of the national library collection in the British Museum, Panizzi s great domed reading room was opened to the public, built within the original quadrangle of the museum. The Round Reading Room has been the symbol of the library ever since and according to Kenny is much loved by those who use it. Yet in spite of the impressive architectural qualities it is clearly no longer suited to its original purpose, nor has it been for many decades. As a reading area it is both disconcertingly noisy and distracting and the conflicting movements of staff, readers, and book trolleys are both inefficient and can cause congestion. Above all however, the once ample provision of cast-iron book stacks in the four corners of the quadrangle were beginning to be exhausted by the end of the nineteenth century, and available space was soon filled. As a result the last century has seen the progressive movement of more and more books away from the readers with consequent delays in the provision of material, or the need to visit more than one site. The bulky collections of modern newspapers were transferred initially to a repository and subsequently to a Newspaper Library at Colindale in 1932, but it was only after the second World War that it began to be apparent that a new library building, separate from the collections of the museum would soon be required to house the rapidly growing collections.

It will have taken more than 50 years from the inception of the new building to its opening to the first group of readers. In 1947 seven acres adjoining Great Russell Street, opposite to the Museum, were identified by the Trustees as a possible site for a new building. After many delays, the architects Sir Leslie Martin and Colin St John Wilson were commissioned to design a building in 1962, which they submitted two years later. Unfortunately, the choice of this site proved to be politically unacceptable as it would have involved the demolition of several streets of Georgian houses and a Hawksmoor Church, and the plans were rejected in 1967. As a result, from the 1960s lesser used books from the Museum's collections began to be transferred to repositories at Bayswater and Woolwich, as further storage space at Bloomsbury was in such chronic short supply. Also, the demand for readers' places, particularly during the summer months, frequently exceeded supply, and had artificially to be limited.

In 1971, a government 'White Paper' proposed the formation of the British Library by the amalgamation of a number of collections of national importance, including those of the British Museum and the National Reference Library for Science and Invention (formerly the Patent Office Library). Both of these collections were then identified as bursting at the seams and in urgent need of re-housing. The new national library service was duly establishe.l in 1973 and further plans were laid for an alternative new building for the two reference collections in Bloomsbury. However, due to a combination of local opposition to further building in Bloomsbury, and the availability of a vacant site adjacent to St Pancras Station, the government decided that the new library building would be some distance away from the museum.

Although the St Pancras site was not ideal in terms of its location, it did at least provide ample space for a magnificent library, occupying 200 000 square metres, housing 3 500 readers and 25 million books. Plans for such an ambitious scheme were agreed in principle by Ministers in 1977, to be completed in three phases. The first and most important of the phases would be of 108 000 square metres and be sufficient for the key needs of the library until the end of the 1980s. Phases 2 and 3 planned for additional office accommodation and reader places likely to be needed in the twenty-first century, and would be commenced at a date to be decided. The first phase was to be further subdivided into Phases 1A, 1B, and 1C, in order to defer expenditure commitment to the whole project, and indeed Phase 1A was further divided into sub-sub Phases 1AA and 1AB. The breaking down of this ambitious project into such small parts and the lack of any overall financial commitment to the whole sowed the seeds of the highly complex and inefficient management of the project that would ultimately prove to be so wasteful in time and money.

Permission to go ahead with Phase 1AA of the library was given in March 1978, with construction on site due to begin in 1979. However, the change of government in the summer of that year meant a further one-year delay whilst the project was re-assessed. Permission was again granted in 1980, although to proceed at a somewhat slower rate than had originally been envisaged, due to need to reduce government expenditure. Thus construction work did not begin until the Spring of 1982, and full financial approval for all parts of Phase 1A was not secured until April 1987, with a then estimated completion date of 1993. Additional complications were due to fundamental changes in government departmental responsibilities during the late 1980s and early 1990s and the privatization of the work of the Property Services Agency (PSA). Thus the transfer of financial responsibility for the building passed to the Office of Arts and Libraries (OAL) in April 1988, which in turn was subsumed in the Department of National Heritage (DNH) in 1992, and the appointment of the British Library's own project managers in October 1989 to oversee the acceptance of the building on behalf of the OAL and plan their own future occupation.

It was not until 1988 that there was any overall budget for the construction of Phase 1 A of the building, including the reading rooms for Science Technology and Industry, and for Rare Books, Music and Manuscripts, the closed access book storage and an auditorium. Until then construction had to be planned and proceed year by year on the basis of available funding. However in that year a cash limited budget of 300 million was agreed. Likewise in July 1990 the government allocated a further 150 million for the completion of Phases 1B and 1C incorporating the General Humanities Reading Room, accommodation for the Oriental and India Office Collections, the King's Library and a restaurant, all with a planned completion date of October 1996. However at the same time, in return for committing itself to the funding of these stages, the Treasury was seeking ways of scaling down the original ambitious project. A study was instituted into how the building might be completed to meet the key requirements of the library, which in essence meant that Phases 2 and 3 would be abandoned, and the land upon which it would have been built was to be sold off once the building was complete. It is hard to imagine any more crass and short-sighted decision, that would prevent any future government with more long-term vision from fulfilling a plan that the present one felt unwilling or unable to complete.

Thus the new library, once it is eventually occupied, will be barely adequate for the needs of its existing users, who have had to put up with all kinds of delays and other difficulties for decades. There will be no significant opportunities to develop new services. Many of the reading rooms will not be able to cope with the expected increase in usage once the new building becomes fully operational, and the advantages of bringing together at one site the enormous information resources avaiable, become apparent to scholars. Likewise the enormous book stores will be almost full immediately and the need for further off-site storage will soon become apparent. Above all, there will be no leeway to maintain an acceptable level of the present service until such time as the impact of electronic storage and delivery systems can be fully evaluated and necessary changes to working practices implemented.

All of these problems with the new library might have been bearable had the project been well managed and not subject to further delay since it took its final shape in 1990. However the recent National Audit Office report (1996) identifies a catalogue of disasters in the management and technical implementation of the project causing further delay and expense whilst remedial work was implemented. Problems with the quality and reliability of the mobile book shelving, damage to electrical cabling, poorly designed ducting, and the need for better emergency lighting are among the 230 000 defects in the building that have been identified to date. The National Audit Office report uses remarkably restrained language to try to identify the causes of these problems and above all the key lessons to be learned for other such projects in the future. The overall impression gained was that the mistakes were due to a lack of foresight and commitment to the ideals of project as a whole by government, rather than any incompetence by individual employees. Yet as was pointed out in an editorial in the Daily Telegraph (1995) it has not been by government standards a particularly expensive building. New headquarters for the security services and new office accommodation for Parliament are likely to prove equally expensive, but have not been subjected to the short-sighted and penny-pinching funding of government, nor the public scrutiny afforded to this project.

At the same time as the debacle over the construction of the new building there has also been the inevitable illinformed sniping at its outward appearance and the stark contrast between its restrained features and the Victorian exuberance of the neighbouring St Pancras station, or indeed the architectural splendour of the British Museum. These have come from both tradionalists who will mourn the loss of the Round Reading Room, and modernists who foresee the imminent redundancy of printed books and indeed the need for traditional collections and reading rooms. However, the inability to appreciate or cherish examples of great contemporary architecture has been one of the abiding problems of British society for generations, and no doubt our successors will be able to make a far better assessment of the design than we are currently able to do.

No doubt all of the remaining problems with the building will soon be resolved and readers will be able to take advantage of what, for many years to come, will inevitably be a fine library. Yet the prolonged gestation, and the missed opportunities of this project must be an object of regret, and indeed shame, to all those who believe that libraries are a fundamentaly important part of our heritage.

David Stoker


Committee of Public Accounts (1991) 18th Report. London: HMSO (HC 132 1990-91)

Daily Telegraph (1996) 'Catalogue of disasters' [editorial]. 15 May

Kenny, Anthony (1994) The British Library and the St Pancras Building. London: The British Library

National Audit Office (1990) New building for the British Library. London: HMSO (HC 650 1989-90)

National Audit Office (1996) Progress in completing the new British Library. London: HMSO (HC 362 1995-1996)