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January 19, 2009

Renderings of a new storage facility for the British Library have been released. The design, by HOK, comes with plenty of interesting details—including an expansive green roofing system—but it's the overall purpose of the building complex that seems most astonishing. That is, the British Library expands its collections every year by another twelve kilometers of shelf space. By law, the Library must collect and maintain at least one copy of everything officially published in the UK—so while that zine you put together for some friends on the office photocopier might slip through the nation's archival cracks, that random newspaper published by the Nottinghamshire Secretary's Association will be collected. And all of that paper has to go somewhere.

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"Up to 80 percent of the library’s total collection of books and the entirety of its newspaper archive could be held at the completed site. Preservation, storage, and expansion have been taken into consideration by integrating innovative physical storage solutions and complex phasing to allow the ongoing work of the British Library to continue uninterrupted," World Architecture News writes. Because of its preservationist goal, the new facility is also very carefully climate-controlled.

Indeed, library storage facilities present a very real environmental challenge, as the amount of energy required to run these facilities is nothing short of extraordinary.

As the Guardian reported somewhat cynically at the end of 2007, these facilities will be where books "go to serve their life sentences in a secure environment, thanks to the grace of the provisions of the 1911 [UK] Copyright Act and later government legislation." Indeed, the "books, journals, and magazines" that will be housed there, the article points out with a kind of macabre glee, are material "that many of us have forgotten about or have never heard of in the first place."

In any case, the new British Library storage center by HOK presents us with another opportunity to rethink how, what, and where we preserve the past. At what point is the energy expense of holding on to the past simply not worth it?

Or is maintaining a continuous historic record of civilization something that we must perform at all cost?

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