The British Library Arup; The British Library Arup;

The British Library, Kings Cross

The British Library: housing a nation’s literature

In 1978, the UK Government announced its decision to commission a new national library. The old library at the British Museum had long since outgrown its Bloomsbury home, with much of the collection being housed in poor-quality storage 10 miles away in Woolwich.

The new library would bring these and other important national collections together in a single, purpose-built building. Designed by Sir Colin St John Wilson with 120,000m2 of space over 14 floors, the new British Library would be the largest public building constructed in the UK in the 20th century.

Project Summary

463 miles of bookshelves

10millionbricks used in construction

1.6millionvisitors a year

10 million bricks were needed to complete our St Pancras site, which is the largest public building constructed in the UK in the 20th century.

Challenges underground

The foundation for the new building would have to reconcile a complex set of conditions. The five levels of basement stores would run 24 meters below ground and support nine levels of public reading and office space above. Added to that would be the enormous weight of the books themselves. The site sits on the chalk and clay layers that lie under much of London. The foundations would have to cope with their natural capacity to shrink and swell.

Creating the tools for the job

Adding to the complexity, the site sits alongside St Pancras and Kings Cross stations with their many underground train lines. The geotechnical teams would have to plan around the Northern and Victoria lines running below the library.

Computer modelling and finite element analysis were in their infancy in the 1970s. Our geotechnical team had developed their own finite element computer programme, SAFE, to model and test how the foundations would behave faced with these challenges. The team were also able to accurately and confidently predict any likely movement of the tube tunnels and surrounding buildings.


The 463 mile long bookshelf

When it opened, the library was home to 120 million books and print items, from da Vinci’s notebook and the world’s oldest printed document to today’s newspapers. As well as supporting the weight of the coffered slabs that form the library, columns would have to support the weight of this huge collection. With over 500,000 titles being added each year, space was at a premium. 

For the columns, our team used cased steel sections as well as reinforced concrete. They were able to reduce the column sizes to match the width of the library’s bookstacks, creating a much more efficient layout. Today, the library’s collection has grown to over 170 million items, all supported by these space saving columns. In 2015, the library was awarded Grade 1 listing for its architectural interest and the craftsmanship of its construction.


Shaping a better world

Founded by Sir Ove Arup, we are firm of designers, planners, engineers, architects, consultants and technical specialists all focused – like our work at 52 Lime Street – on shaping a better world.

Discover more