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When you’re a Legal Deposit library holding more than eight million books and manuscripts, one million maps, and have been entitled to request a copy of every UK publication since 1710, space can be at something of a premium.

And despite Cambridge University Library having room for more than 2.5 million books on its open shelves – more than any other open-access collection in Europe – our 31.8 miles of open shelving are increasingly close to capacity.

Fortunately, help will soon be at hand as work on a new £17.1million off-site storage facility has commenced on Thursday 9 March, with a traditional ground-breaking ceremony at the new construction site on the outskirts of Ely.

It is hoped that the first books will begin arriving from early 2018 to the Lancaster Way Business Park, near Ely. The business park is built on the site of former World War Two bomber base, RAF Witchford. At current estimates, the store would not reach capacity until 2030 at the earliest.

The new store will provide long-term storage for low use printed material acquired by the main University Library, affiliated libraries and other faculty and departmental libraries of the University. The off-site storage facility will provide 106km (65miles) of storage space on around 30,000 shelves. There is also potential to expand the site by 25 percent in the longer term.

The highest shelf at the Ely site (11m) is the height of two adult giraffes and the capacity of the store is equal to 18 Olympic swimming pools. If the shelving was laid out end-to-end, it would stretch from Cambridge to London.

Acting University Librarian Professor Chris Young said: “The new store will help resolve the problem of chronic overcrowding of libraries across the university and ensure that the most appropriate printed material is kept in the most appropriate and useful location for all our readers.

“The off-site storage will also help the University Library support teaching, learning and research by allowing us to plan new spaces and rethink our existing facilities and services. Only very low-use material will be considered for ingest for which there is little expected future demand.

“Through its Legal Deposit role the University Library has been collecting and preserving the published output of the UK and Ireland in all its variety since 1710, helping to build one of the world’s great academic library collections.  The new store will ensure that we fulfil our responsibilities as a national repository of research material by enabling us to house the publications in suitable conditions and make them available to future generations of researchers and library users. “

Once the migration process is under way, the delivery of printed material to the Ely store is expected to continue as a high volume activity until at last 2025. Should readers request material, the physical item will be retrieved and transported to the UL. Requests of material from the store, aim to be delivered to the University Library within 1 – 2 working days.

“More than 30 sites within a 50-mile radius of Cambridge were evaluated on size, ground conditions, land cost, and transport links before the Ely site was confirmed as the preferred location,” added Young. “Our new facility will future-proof the university libraries’ storage needs for a decade and more, especially given the projected effect of a gradual transition from print to digital-only publishing over the same period.

“The main University Library alone has more than 260,000 annual visits and more than 300,000 items borrowed per year. We want people to have the best possible experience every time they visit – and the new storage facility will allow us to run both the main University Library and our affiliated libraries much more efficiently.”