Reference Library 

10 October 2022


Cover of Ariel

From Ariel, the staff magazine of the BBC, for April 1965

‘Did they have ice-cubes in India in 1880?’ is the sort of question to which the Library constantly has to find an answer. Demand of one kind or another — for information, books, maps, periodicals, newspapers, booklists, or advice on any of them — is what makes the Library tick.

For this reason, the Library is not an exhaustive storehouse of books on every subject, although there is information on every subject there. Demand — largely — from programme departments determines which new books are bought each year; and demand, of course, is responsible for the enormous number of newspapers and periodicals which are sent out to all parts of the Corporation. As Joan Houlgate, Reference Librarian, puts it, ‘We set out to be useful rather than large and comprehensive. A book is, in a sense, a tool. When it is no longer useful — however important historically it may be — it is liable to make way for something else’.

There are the Central Library at Broadcasting House, London, and four branches: at Television Centre, Bush House, Caversham (for Monitoring), and Kingswood Warren (for Engineering Research, where the books are obviously of a specialized nature). Libraries in the Regions are autonomous, but there is a useful two-way exchange of information and help of various kinds between them and London. The Library services Wood Norton and the Natural History Unit at Bristol and obtains their books and periodicals for them; it buys on behalf of BBC offices overseas; it follows round the world staff on duty trips abroad, and makes sure they receive their Economist or New Statesman wherever they may be. For this purpose the Library staff need to keep in close touch with what is going on in all parts of the Corporation. They buy books on behalf of independent overseas broadcasting organizations, and keep an up-to-date basic list of books on broadcasting which is particularly useful when overseas organizations start to build up their own libraries.


Women sit in a library


About 2,000 different newspapers and periodicals are bought regularly and delivered. They come from all parts of the world and in at least forty different languages, and are in the charge of Helena Bailey’s Business Section.

About 5,000 books are bought each year. But the books in the Library are simply the starting-point, for the Library subscribes to as many outside libraries as possible, and belongs to nearly all outstanding societies which have specialized libraries of their own.


Two men and a woman work amongst newspapers

In the Newspapers and Periodicals Section at B.H.


The vital question about ice-cubes in India in the ‘eighties calls attention to what, to some people, is the most useful part of the Library’s service — the supply of direct information, often on the telephone and at short notice. In 1964 there were 31,000 such calls to the Central Library (there were 32,000 book loans in the same year) and 100,000 calls to all five libraries together.


Two women work at a busy desk

Television Centre Library: the main inquiry desk is in the foreground.


The nature and degree of obscurity of these questions vary enormously. The more unusual ones make interesting reading: a designer wants a microphotograph of a rat’s stomach lining; another needs an engraving by George Stubbs of a baby in the womb; who gives the Queen a white rose on Christmas Day to pay the pin rent of a residence?; what is the origin of ‘hootnanny’, and what are the dates of the expressions ‘hangover’, ‘not my cup of tea’, and ‘dogsbody’; what was the price of an expensive engagement ring in 1880?


Men sit around a large table

Reference Library, Bush House.


A fitting tailpiece might be provided by the television series ‘The Great War’. For eighteen months there was a long stream of books and documents from the Library to West London, and indeed many of them flowed back with equal regularity. But when the armistice had been signed, the last note sounded, and the last reflection uttered, two taxis arrived at the entrance to Broadcasting House: in them were 400 books — returned with thanks.


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