Music in the British Library: The Present and the Future

By Chesser, Richard | Fontes Artis Musicae, July-September 2011 | Go to article overview

Music in the British Library: The Present and the Future


Chesser, Richard, Fontes Artis Musicae


The British Library (BL) came into existence in 1973 as a result of the British Library Act of 1972, but its origins go back to 1753 with the foundation by Act of Parliament of the British Museum from the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, the Earls of Oxford, and Sir Robert Cotton. To these collections King George II added the Royal Library in 1757. The collections contained not only printed books and manuscripts but antiquities and natural history specimens too, so that the new institution contained such a miscellany of material that it was in effect both a library and a museum. The paradox was that though the foundations were of aristocratic or even royal provenance, they now belonged to the public, and access to them was free. That principle has survived to the present day, even though financial pressures on the public purse sometimes might challenge whether such munificence can be afforded. Today access to the BL reading rooms is granted to all those who have a need to use our collections, regardless of institutional affiliation, academic qualification, or country of origin. Hence our role is as a 'guarantor of continued public access to both our rich legacy of content and new forms of digital content' even in 'today's climate of significant financial challenge'. (2)

Although the earliest visitors to the institution--including an eight-year-old Mozart--may have experienced the Museum as an exhibition space where its prized manuscripts of Beowulf, Magna Carta, and the Lindisfarne Gospels were displayed alongside the antiquities of ancient Greece and Rome, almost immediately there were signs of change which have come to define the role of the present BL some 250 years later. With the receipt of British publications after registration of copyright at Stationers' Hall, the book departments of the British Museum began to develop a comprehensiveness of collecting in British material that is at the heart of what we do today; and the complementary acquisition of selective foreign and antiquarian material meant that the Museum was acquiring the sources which have ensured that the present Library is at the centre of international research. In the early days of musicology, scholars wanting to pursue lines of enquiry suggested by the histories of music written by Hawkins and Burney would be well served by the music collections of the British Museum, just as those collections had served Hawkins and Burney themselves.

Today the Library's published strategic priorities for 2011 to 2015 are amongst the best indicators of the BL's own perception of its role as a modern national library. The first of these priorities is to guarantee access to our collections, not only our historic and present ones but also those we acquire in the future, which increasingly will be in new formats. Collections of this size and quality have huge value for research purposes, and this requires the Library to work with the appropriate research communities in order to ensure that what we collect and what we do thereafter is relevant to those communities. This, in turn, offers important opportunities to seek collaborative partnerships, the obvious benefits of which include shared development costs and ensuring appropriate contact with our users. In doing all of this, the Library realises that its collections have the potential to enrich the cultural life of the nation by bringing those collections to the attention of the widest possible community--not just through high-profile iconic items, important and engaging though they undoubtedly are, but in the minutiae of what the Library holds, all of which has a significance, meaning and perhaps a future story to tell. This is one of the areas where a library curator can add great value to what the Library has to offer.

So what do these admirable, top-level, sometimes aspirational, goals mean in the context of music? What are the relevant collections to which musicians need access? What music material will we be collecting in the future? …

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