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Great George Street library nears centenary of move

ICE head of knowlege transfer, Mike Chrimes looks back at the history of the ICE library.

As past ICE president Gwilym Roberts kindly reminded me, April 2008 is the centenary of the Special General Meeting and Council Meeting where it was agreed to sell the site of the previous ICE premises of 25 Great George Street to the Government, and acquire the present site of 1-7 Great George Street.

There followed a period of legislative activity, conveyancing and planning, culminating in the design and construction of the present building, which was opened in November 1913.

The planning of the new library accommodation is of particular interest to me.

Then, as now, the library was a significant service to members, and one of the largest technical libraries in the world .

Planning therefore involved the accommodation for the existing collection, some provision for growth, and also temporary accommodation to enable the library to operate while 25 Great George Street was demolished and 1-7 Great George Street erected.

The latter was achieved by temporary storage on the Lower ground floor of the new building, with staff manning a request area on the ground floor, during 1912-1913.

Temporary shelving had the same shelf locations as the old and new accommodation to avoid re-cataloguing.

The 1896 building had provided space for around 27,000 volumes on the first floor and 18,000 in an upper library, allowing 20 years for growth. Shelving from these rooms was to be salvaged and reused in the new building.

Additional accommodation was also provided in the new building in a lower library where the Café Bar now is.

By the 1930s space had become an issue, unsurprising given the original plans, and a programme of discardments began, beginning with books on topography and travel. The changing nature of civil engineering, with the development of specialist libraries at IMechE and IET facilitated this process in the post- Second World War period.

The debate had begun before the First World War as policies changed from comprehensive acquisitions across science and engineering to concentrating on what was being used by members and abstracted in the technical indexes of the time.

Today, issues of space and the challenge of accommodating the still growing body of engineering literature confront me on a daily basis.
It is a challenge for which access to the internet and e-publications is only a palliative not a cure.

Another issue of the time was the effect of atmospheric pollution on the bindings of library books. Items bound only 20 to 30 years earlier were suffering decay. Fortunately, this problem is no longer as severe, although the long-term deterioration of “acid” paper is.

The recently launched “Adopt a book” scheme, an idea of my colleague Claire Delgal, has proved a great success, with members and other library users.

Early adopted titles include Tredgold’s Elementary principles of carpentry, Smiles’ Lives of the engineers, and Fairbairn’s Application of cast and wrought iron.

 Details of the scheme can be found at

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