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Boston Spa is a sleepy little village of 4,000 inhabitants set in rural West Yorkshire. Located just off the main A1, the Great North Road between London and Scotland, it is close to the town of Wetherby – and has a secret!

Around 260 million years BCE, in the Late Permian Period, the supercontinent of Pangea was an arid land with large areas of desert. Across that desert, stretching from what is now Siberian Russia to the North of England, was a shallow sea. Thick deposits of mud rich in lime and salts of magnesium built up on the sea floor, and over geologic time were compressed and changed to form thick beds of Magnesian Limestone, a cream to honey-colored stone which is excellent for building.

In 1744, springs bubbling to the surface near the banks of the River Wharfe, through these local rock formations, were found to be rich in limestone, sulphur and magnesium salts. Thus was a small spa created, with inns, baths and all that was necessary for a member of the 18th century gentry to ‘take the waters’. Boston Spa was linked to another small village, Thorp Arch on the other bank of the River Wharfe via a rather attractive bridge (built in local stone, of course) erected in 1722. The spa declined rapidly, however, as nearby Harrogate, a rather more fashionable watering place, grew in prominence.

There things might have rested, with Boston Spa slipping back into a ‘Sleepy Hollow’ type of existence, were it not for WW2. On the 10th May, 1940, Hitler’s armored Blitzkrieg rolled over the nations of Western Europe; the ‘Phoney War’ was over, with a vengeance. Just one week later, a massive new Royal Ordnance Factory began to be built on a site just to the north of Thorp Arch. Well-camouflaged, the site grew over the coming years, and produced millions of bombs, land mines and rounds of 20mm ammunition for the Army and the Royal Air Force. There was a great (if temporary) influx of workers, some of whom would have been ‘directed’ by the Ministry of Labour, and I dare say they entertained themselves in the ‘Fox & Hounds’ and the ‘Admiral Hawke’ pubs, and the now-closed ‘Crown Hotel’. Fortunately, the British Government did not have to step in – as it did with the munition workers around Carlise in WW1 – to prevent public drunkenness and absenteeism; this may have had something to do with the fact that spirits were in very short supply, and the traditional British bitter beer was well watered down, a fact that every American serviceman in the ETO could attest to!

Boston Spa, small though it was, deserved a library, and since it fell within the boundaries of the Metropolitan Borough of Leeds, the Leeds City Council established a Branch Library, on High Street (the Leeds library system has no less than 36 branches). The Library itself is close to the community’s designated Conservation Area, which has some very pleasant Georgian buildings, built from the local Magnesian Limestone, however, the Library itself, as you can see, shares none of those features; indeed it is, in architectural terms, strikingly similar to the structure next to it – the public toilets! Around two to three times larger than the toilet block, and therefore hardly on a grand scale, it does, however, fulfill many functions. As well as the usual book loans/requests and computer access, it hosts children’s events when the local school is closed for the holidays, offers computer training to senior citizens, and makes available all City Council documents for public viewing. Unfortunately, it was a Tuesday when I visited, one of two weekdays that the Boston Spa Library is closed so I wasn’t able to comment on their collections. I CAN say that it does seem to be cheerfully decorated, and the number of public notices bear witness to the central role it plays in the life of the village. I really liked the striking group of standing stones, which have been placed in front of the building (small megaliths? miniliths?). They are Magnesian Limestone, and very attractive, too.

Boston Spa has, however, a big surprise lurking on the edge of the village. When the Royal Ordnance Factory closed for good in 1958, there was a great debate as to what to do with the 600-plus buildings and the site itself. As well as a plan for a prison and a small trading estate, the National Lending Library for Science & Technology was established on the old ROF site in 1961. This specialist library serviced the research needs of sectors such as the pharmaceutical industry, until it was absorbed by the British Library in 1973.

The British Library was originally part of the iconic British Museum in London (established 1753). In 1973, the national library for the U.K. was formed from the bibliographic collections of the British Museum, the British National Bibliography, the National Central Library, and the National Lending Library for Science & Technology. Although the main site for the BL remains in London, in a purpose-built building in St Pancras, there was still a need for other storage. After all, the BL has, probably, the best ‘hard copy’ collection of newspapers in the world, in many languages as well as 14 million books (and it is a ‘library of deposit’, too, like the Library of Congress) giving a current total of 150 million plus objects in its many collections. This staggering number, and its worldwide collecting policy, means that the BL needs 6 MILES of new shelf space per year! In 1983, this storage problem was exacerbated, when the BL added the National Sound Archive to its responsibilities. A careful assessment was undertaken, and a long-term plan decided upon. The newspaper storage facility at Colingdale in Northern London was to be disposed of by 2013, and a new Newspaper Storage Building built on what was to become the British Library North (known inside the BL, and on their site, as ‘Boston Spa’). Not only that, but a further building phase saw the erection of the ‘Additional Storage Building’ for low-use items from the main collections. Any items requested by members of the public in London would be put on the daily shuttle to the capital, for next-day availability. A Reading Room has also been established at Boston Spa, parallel to the Main Reading Room at St Pancras; the difference is that you do NOT need to be the holder of a BL Readers Ticket to gain access to the magnificent collections at Boston Spa, either stored items, or online.

Items are held in 140,000 bar-coded containers, with a capacity of 7 million items, which are stored in temperature and humidity controlled conditions and retrieved, when needed, by robots. This storage system extends over 162 linear miles. The two divisions operating at Boston Spa are the British Library Document Supply Service (BLDSS) and the Document Supply Collection. The newspaper collection is simply HUGE; more than 90 MILES of newspapers are held in special, low oxygen storage conditions, with potential for 25 years worth of ‘growth’. As well as all this newsprint, there are 296,000 journals, 400,000 conference proceedings, 3 million monographs, 500,000 theses and 5 million ‘official publications’. All these staggering figures add up to an estimated 70% of the British Library’s physical collection. Readers can consult 60,000 online journals and a vast array of digital media selected from a fully integrated catalogue, which has merged no less than 40 legacy systems online.

This is librarianship on an industrial scale!

Even so, I did notice that the little Boston Spa Library has an event coming up soon. On the 1st October, between 2.30 and 3.30, the Library is having a ‘Mega Book Quiz’ on literary trivia – complete with prizes!  I was thinking that I know of a crack team of R&BLers who could sweep the pool, when I saw the the bottom line – ‘Targeted at adults aged 60 years and over; come and help us celebrate ‘Older People’s Day’ ‘


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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Sep 20, 2013 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, and DAILY KOS UNIVERSITY.

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