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Moving words

Cheerless and drab but 'full of amazing stuff'. The British Library Newspapers collection at Colindale is moving and also becoming increasingly digitised. Huw Richards wonders if researchers will miss the feel of the paper beneath their fingers

The journey to the far reaches of the Northern Line's Edgware branch always did feel rather like time travel - an impression accentuated about 20 years ago when London Underground managers admitted that, on the "next train" indicators on that creaky, rattling stretch of line, one minute really was longer than 60 seconds.

Head out of the Tube station, cross the road and there stands the 1930s blockhouse that houses British Library Newspapers, known simply to its users as Colindale. There can be few historians, at least those concerned with the history of modern Britain, who have not made that journey. For many doctoral students it was the foundation of their research, requiring months of sustained attention to bound volumes and microfilm.

Not, however, for much longer. The announcement in mid-October of a £33 million capital grant, part of a government package for the cultural and creative industries, was Colindale's death sentence. The hard copies - a collection estimated to total 750 million newspaper pages - will go to a new, purpose-built facility at Boston Spa in Yorkshire, while the 400,000 reels of micro-film and digital access will move to join the rest of the British Library at St Pancras, nine stops and 26 minutes down the Northern Line.

Precisely when the last volume and the final reader will leave Colindale is not yet certain. Stewart Gillies, head of reference services at the library, said in late October that his best guess was "some time in 2012". It will end the career, dating back to 1932, of a building with some of the qualities - although not, to the regret of its conservation experts, the temperature control - of an iceberg.

Readers see only the entrance, corridor and an austere common room on the ground floor plus the first-floor reading rooms. Unseen by the public are the six floors of stacks in which local papers are classified by year rather than title, more efficient in storage terms but meaning that the reader who orders two or three consecutive years of a paper is unknowingly dispatching a member of staff to as many different locations, often on different floors, to collect them.

Occupying less space, but just as essential, are services including conservation and binding, and a massive microfilming operation which, at the same time as it keeps up with 1,700 current titles, attempts to add to the number of older papers available in this format. The first step of this process, before the paper is placed in front of one of 22 state-of-the-art cameras, is for each page to be ironed, just as George V's daily copy of The Times was before reaching the royal breakfast table.

Newspapers may be a historian's dream. As Aled Jones, professor of history at Aberystwyth University, says: "When you read an old paper, it takes you back to the day when it was first published." But the historian's dream can be a nightmare in conservation terms. Gillies says: "The problem is not with the oldest papers. It starts with the introduction of wood pulp as the basic material from the mid-19th century onwards. It is not designed to last, and if the material is handled a lot the decay accelerates. The paper becomes brittle and starts to flake."

The problem is exacerbated by the building itself. "It is simply not fit for purpose. It is a warehouse, designed for storage rather than conservation. We have no control over the temperature or humidity," says Gillies. Two parts of the complex, known as "the sheds", were built as temporary accommodation after the collection was bombed in 1940, but remain in use today.

The consequences can be seen in the pile of flakes that builds up under the desk of the most scrupulously careful reader. The current estimate is that around a third of the collection is, for practical purposes, unusable.

The new building at Boston Spa will have conservation facilities and conditions that Colindale cannot provide. The move will also enable a full audit of the state of volumes that may not have been opened since they were deposited. "A few weeks ago," recalls Gillies, "we opened one volume and found that it was shot through with shrapnel from the bombing."

At the same time, a host of memories will depart up the M1 with the lorries carrying the bound volumes. Those memories are wont to be mixed. Times Higher Education once called Colindale "the Alcatraz of the British Library", while the journalist and newspaper historian Matthew Engel wrote of the "exasperated affection" it has induced in users. Jones speaks of "a drab place full of amazing stuff".

Recall tends to be most acute among historians whose research involved a long spell at Colindale. Sir Deian Hopkin, who recently retired from his post as vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, spent long periods there in the 1960s as a research student studying the Labour press, in particular the Independent Labour Party's Labour Leader.

"I felt a sense of resignation," he recalls. "You had to do it - there was no alternative. It was extremely bleak. There were no facilities. It closed for lunch at one o'clock and there was nowhere to go. It was clearly designed for storage rather than access - there was limited space and it was not very friendly. There also seemed to be a lot of people with strange projects of their own, but there was no sense of community in the way that there was at the Institute of Historical Research or the British Library. I was there for long periods and never got to know anyone."

That Sir Deian's research built into an archive of around 15,000 index cards helps to explain why he was an enthusiast for digitising newspaper archives long before most researchers knew what this meant. And along with the frustrations came an awareness of the unique quality of the holdings. "There had clearly been a curator at the British Library in the 1890s who had an interest in the Labour press and had ensured that they had a remarkably good collection, often of publications that lasted for only one or two issues. Labour papers in this period often reported what was in other Labour publications, so you could cross-reference and track themes and stories," he says.

Little had changed when Jean Seaton, now professor of media history at the University of Westminster, began her extended Colindale stints in the 1970s. "It felt as though I got on the Tube to Eastern Europe every day. It wasn't at the cheerful end of the library experience, and it had the oldest Formica in the world. The ordering system seemed arcane and bureaucratic even compared with the Public Record Office. Academics generally raise the quality of eating and drinking in places where they gather - there were always good coffee shops around the British Museum - but Colindale was the exception, with no facilities and nowhere to go. I used to take a Thermos and sit outside. But then there was the absolutely electric experience of picking up an old newspaper and being transported into another world - not just the stories you are there to look at but the bric-a-brac of everyday life."

Access then was still almost entirely via bound volumes delivered on large wheeled trolleys that Jones likens to tumbrils. The first microfilming was done in the 1950s and gathered pace from the following decade, easing pressure on the collection but not always enhancing the reader's experience. Adrian Smith, senior lecturer in history at the University of Southampton, is far from alone in confessing to an aversion to "booths and microfilm". The collection remains confined to entire papers - Seaton still recalls the fury of her late husband, Ben Pimlott, in the 1980s when the library refused to entertain the possibility of incorporating an outstanding cuttings archive from the Daily Herald.

The district remains rather uninviting, although Smith admits to being consistently tempted to turn the other way out of the station and visit the nearby RAF Museum. If neither the cafe across the road nor the common room in the library is likely to win prizes for elegance, that they are there at all marks an improvement.

There is little doubt that, these days, the library is more welcoming all round. Tony Collins, professor of social history at Leeds Metropolitan University, says: "The received wisdom is that the staff are unhelpful and surly, but that certainly isn't my experience. I've found them extremely helpful and with considerable expertise."

Seaton does remember grumpiness back in the 1970s, but has no complaints today, citing the example of a student who did his PhD research on a publication that did not have a complete run anywhere. "There'd be a couple at Colindale, then one in Ireland, another somewhere else, three more in Colindale and so on. It was a real feat of detection. The staff at Colindale were very helpful and also told him to let them know where he found other copies, so they could help future researchers," she recounts.

One constant irritation at Colindale has been its limited opening hours - currently 10am to 4.45pm. Sir Deian speaks for generations of users when he says: "It would have made so much difference to have somewhere that opened from nine to nine." That will be one immediate benefit of the move to St Pancras, with opening hours for the microfilms - which will go into a second-floor room currently used as part of the Business and Intellectual Property Centre - in line with those of other reading rooms.

Gillies points to the advantage of greater proximity to the rest of the British Library's holdings: "It will be easier to use newspapers and other collections on the same day. St Pancras' greater convenience for most people should mean that there are more readers overall."

At the same time there will be inconveniences, not least in the transition period, with material inaccessible during its transfer to a new home. The bulk of heavily used material, accounting for 59 per cent of reader requests, is on microfilm. Some readers will, however, find it necessary to make the trek to Boston Spa, a location that is not very accessible by public transport. Gillies reckons that this will chiefly affect those seeking access to local newspapers published between the 1930s and 1985.

In an ideal world, everything would be digitised, with all the scope that offers for refining and targeting searches. The library currently has around three million pages of material - mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries - available digitally. That's an impressive quantity, yet it is only 0.4 per cent of the entire collection. Gillies estimates that the average page costs around £1 to digitise and notes that a scheme costing around £750 million is, under current conditions, a Utopian objective.

Even if this were possible, most historians see value in handling the original papers. Smith speaks for many when he talks of "the sense of period and of context that can only come from the original papers. Digitisation helps you to make links, but without that context you're unlikely - unless you have an exceptionally agile mind - to see how to make the links. Take that tactile experience away, reduce it to a matter of reading on a screen or from microfilm and you unavoidably lose something."

It is the risk of losing that experience - not the rattling journey along the Northern Line or those rather fusty reading rooms - that occasions genuine concern as historians contemplate the closure of Colindale.

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