The ultimate archive of the British Library

If you think you’ve got an archiving problem, spare a thought for Stephen Lilgert, head of infrastructure strategy and development at the British Library.

Publishers are legally required to send the library a copy of every book or newspaper printed in the UK, “although we draw the line at London’s free-sheets,” says Lilgert.

That requires a lot of physical storage space: 400 miles of shelves to be precise, holding over 13 million books and nearly a million journals and newspapers.

Storing them all is increasingly an IT challenge as much as a physical one. An increasing amount of content is being digitised, with the library investing in not only half a petabyte of data storage but a high-speed network between its buildings at St Pancras and Boston Spa in Yorkshire (home to the library’s document supply business and less-requested items).

The new comms line – powered by Foundry Networks BigIron RX core switches and FastIron FES-X switches and offering a gigabit of bandwidth – was necessary because of the high quality of digital material being ingested into the system: the library’s photographic studios use 50 megapixel cameras, shortly to be upgraded to 65 megapixels, and the files they produce are very big.

One example of the kind of project the library’s IT system needs to be able to handle is the digitisation of 80,000 19th century books, a task which has already produced 8 terabytes (TB) of data.

“We need to be able to respond to all kinds of user requests: for example, when someone recently told us they needed 10TB to store a million newspapers,” Lilgert says. “When you’re scanning a broadsheet newspaper you can imagine the size of some of the files. And ultimately it’s only going to get worse.”

The new switches upgrade the library’s previous Foundry-based network, which was installed in 2000. Prior to that the library used an obsolete FDDI-based 3Com network – which reportedly crashed during an (after-hours) match of multiplayer Doom. “We figured we wouldn’t try that again,” Lilgert says.

Despite the rapid digitisation of content, Lilgert does not foresee that the current growth in demand for shelf space will shrink any time soon. “Every day 16,000 people use the collection, and every morning there is a line of people going down Euston road waiting to get in,” he says. “People will always want paper books – we’ll just have to put more buildings up.”

Further reading: The Natural History Museum goes digital

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