The British Library’s Patent Activities and Britain’s Patent Depository Network

Stephen van Dulken
Patents Documentation Manager, The British Library


The history and operation of the British version of the Patent and Trademark Depository Library Program (PTDLP), the Patents Information Network (PIN), is described together with the history and the present patent activities of the British Library. The British Library houses the national collection of patents from around the world.


United Kingdom, Patents Information Network (PIN), Libraries, Patent Collections, Enquiries, Publications, and Internet Sources.


This article provides the history and current operation of the British equivalent of the Patent and Trademark Depository Library Program (PTDLP). The article also gives information on the patent activities of the British Library.

There is a fundamental difference in the way patents are handled, as a library tool, in the United Kingdom from the United States of America (USA). The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) examines and grants United States patents and then stores the national collection of patents from all over the world and makes them available to members of the public in its search rooms.

In the United Kingdom, the Patent Office, which is based at Newport, Wales, also examines, grants and publishes patents. Granted patents are then sent to the British Library to join patents from other patent authorities to form the national collection. The Patent Office itself has no library for the public to use. This arrangement is as if the Library of Congress ran the search room for patents in one of its main buildings. The thinking behind this arrangement is that those looking for technical literature can use patents together with books and journals. Sometimes this is appreciated by users, but we should admit that often this arrangement, though a unique one in the world, causes problems of various kinds for the staff, such as the lack of liaison.

This paper is a revised version of a presentation at the 23rd Annual Patent and Trademark Depository Library Training Seminar on March 22, 2000 held in Crysal City, VA.

Historical Background

First, we present a little history as background. An 1852 patent act reformed the complicated and expensive patent systems. The three separate systems for Ireland, Scotland and England/Wales were unified into a single system operating from a new patent office located in the heart of London’s legal district. This was almost purely a registration system, such as the USA had before 1836.

In 1853, a petition was sent by eminent engineers asking that the Commissioners of Patents authorise a library and museum “containing mechanical and scientific works of every age and people for the use of the public.” Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, strongly backed the idea, which probably arose from the successful Great Exhibition of 1852. Previously, there was no such public collection in Britain. Accordingly, the Patent Office Library was opened to all in March 1855, in what was significantly called “the Drain” because the library was housed in cramped and dark premises in the Patent Office building.

From the start, the collection included books and journals on technology as well as science, although this excluded natural history and medicine which were only added in the 1960s. Patent specifications and indexes were printed and sent out to other patent offices; and in reply copies began to come back. Early annual reports from the United States Patent Office often emphasised how useful it was to receive such material and hinted that it would be a good idea to reciprocate. This was done as a way to encourage Congress to permit the printing of patents.

Until 1964, the library acted as a division of the Patent Office, but it later became part of the British Museum Library. To this day, the British Library often receives letters addressed to the Patent Office Library. There was talk of taking the library divisions away from the British Museum and setting up a national library in its own right, which came about in 1973, with the collection becoming the science wing. This continued to be based in the old building, plus two annexes, until early 1999 when it all moved into a new, modern brick British Library building. The library is now in a neighbourhood, a mile away with three large railway stations and numerous subway lines within five minutes’ walk. It is undeniably convenient for access by public Transportation.

Library Usage

The move was carried out as carefully as possible, to avoid inconveniencing the public. CD-ROM or microfilm sets were used as substitutes for paper as long as possible, but inevitably there was much disruption. The library’s usage fell to about one third of its previous volume, and although it has recovered to about two thirds, the fall is probably permanent. Often only twenty patrons are in. The fall in usage occurred because of the disruption of the move and since for the first time passes had to be obtained and people could no longer wander in. The library had also moved that vital mile from the patent attorney firms. The growing impact of the Internet is another contributing factor to the observed decline in usage. To have one such factor was bad enough, but all four together struck a great blow to library usage. Similarly, the library’s photocopy service, Patent Express, has had a big reduction in its overall usage.

Many familiar faces of library users no longer turn up, and if you meet them elsewhere and ask, they will mutter something about “the Internet”. There is also the fact that in the old building readers could wander into the maze of basements to look at the older stock that dates back to the 1980s and earlier. In the present building, library users have to obtain a pass and be escorted down and back on request to a neat area full of modern roller stacking. Users are not happy with this arrangement, even though this in itself is a concession not available to non-patents users. On the plus side, the library is getting an appreciable number of researchers in the history of law or technology using the older stock because of the proximity to the other parts of the library. The pattern of usage is quite different from that at the USPTO. Because Britain is a relatively small country, and because many patents covering it are in fact European Patent Convention (EPC) patents, the most popular patent authorities are the EPC itself and the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) as well as the USPTO. This inevitably gives an international (and multilingual flavour) to our work.

The Patents Information Network (PIN)

How did the depository libraries scheme evolve? From the beginning, in the early 1850s, Patent Office publications were sent out free of charge to numerous places which were not all libraries. By 1869, hundreds of complete or part complete sets were being sent out free of charge. Many went to British towns, to such varied destinations as the Town Hall, Hanley; the Mechanics’ Institute, Hull; the Public Free Library, Kidderminster; the Board of Health Offices, Rotherham; and the Railway Station at Gorton! Many of these places had populations of only a few thousands. One wonders how much the sets they received were used, and what had happened to these collections since. We can only speculate that some of the collections were probably pulped during World War II when there was a paper shortage. Three sets went to Canada, while ten were sent to the United States. A list of the 1869 American recipients may be of interest. They consisted of: the U.S. Patent Office; the Astor Library, New York; the State Library, Albany; the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia; the Free Library, Boston; the Philadelphia Library Company; the Young Men’s Association Library, Chicago; the Peabody Institute, Baltimore; the Historical Society, Madison, WI; and Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

No support in using these collections was otherwise given, so it was up to the staff of such institutions to struggle to understand the material and to help their patrons. By 1930, the supply had diminished to 22 sets in Britain. Then in 1978 it was decided that the free supply could not be justified, and initially the British Library decided to pay the Patent Office for supplied materials. In 1980, the Patents Information Network (PIN) was set up to regulate support and to encourage the member libraries to get acquainted. The British Library has provided training on how to use the materials, either in London on an individual basis or over a day or two at the library itself. Typical attendance for such training has ranged between two and a dozen staff members. The libraries would ask for what they considered most important. For example, the most popular subjects are classification, British and International Patent Classification; the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT); and increasingly, how to use CD-ROM and then Internet databases. The PCT is heavily emphasised as staff often find it difficult to understand, yet its growing importance means that much American as well as other material is published first in this system. The Patent Office assists with legal questions and sometimes participates in the

In 1987, a “Scrutiny”, which is a small committee of enquiry, reported on a patent provision that included the PIN. It recommended a reduction in the number of PIN libraries to 13. This consisted of 12 public and one university library, Coventry, which was a transfer from the city library. Seven libraries were meant to be larger centres with more material while six basically were to hold abstracts rather than specifications. They are not told what to hold but British, European Patent Office, PCT and American patent specifications or at least abstracts are encouraged as core holdings. Details of the PIN network are given at

Increasingly, the British Library has felt unable to afford to pay for the costs of supplying the literature. Fortunately, CD-ROM has cut down the cost somewhat, and the European Patent Office is providing much
material freely as part of its support for depository libraries in member states. The result is that the old difference between larger and smaller libraries has mostly been diminished.

The single university was regarded as an experiment, although no attempt has been made to assess its success. Britain does not have a land-grant college tradition. As a result, any member of the public attempting to gain access to a college or university library will promptly be shown the exit. Although an exception was supposed to be made at Coventry for those interested in patents, some have on occasion apparently been refused admission. On the other hand, many university students and professors seem reluctant to use a public library. The most usage of public libraries seems to come from design and engineering courses in polytechnics, which were technical colleges that only became fully-fledged universities in the last decade or so. By a deliberate choice, apparently, many polytechnics were originally situated within a few hundred yards of the city public libraries where the polytechnics become the public library’s natural clientele.

The location of the patent collection in each library varies, with some libraries placing it in Business while others house it in Science. In yet others, all three areas are merged anyway. Newcastle and the largest collection after London, Leeds, both have separate departments. The Leeds reading room is small, about 15 feet square, so they encourage patrons to enquire initially by phone or e-mail, since often the enquiry can be resolved by the staff.

Patents Information Network (PIN) Annual Meetings

Every November or December there is an annual, one-day meeting of PIN librarians to discuss issues of common interest. Each year, the meeting is held at a different location. About five years ago, it was decided that a second day be added which would be used for providing training. This typically includes such topics as how to use Globalpat, the nature of design patents and new developments on the Internet. Attendance is about 20 for the meeting and perhaps 15 for the training so these meetings are a modest affair. Each May, there is a PATLIB
Conference of such librarians throughout Europe. Conferences are sponsored by the European Patent Office, and are held at a different European city each year. Usually patent office staff predominate the conferences, and few of those in attendance are librarians. It would be better if these conferences included serious training that is similar to the Annual PTDL Training Seminars hosted by the USPTO; rather than just vague lectures on how Spain or some other country encourages its inventors. Lectures can be presented in English, French or German. PATLIB also provides name badges without city or country marked, so you have to guess from the surname what language the delegate speaks. This can be quite a traumatic experience, at times.

Each member also provides a brief annual report providing statistics on usage and some comments on the year. Inevitably, the statistics are at best “guesstimates” as some users will use the stock without being noted, and the same goes for photocopying. The figures provided are underestimates and state that in a year there were on average: 460 personal visits per collection, with Leeds in fact accounting for 40% of this figure; 700 “remote” enquiries by phone, fax or letter, with Leeds accounting for over half this number; and over 90,000 photocopies or printouts of complete specifications were made at the 9 libraries reporting such data, Leeds was responsible for over 90% of those. In 1999, an electronic bulletin board was set up, which means that we or the Patent Office can send out notices or comments swiftly and conveniently and, theoretically, the libraries can raise problems or make comments. The latter has rarely occurred in practice. The Patent Office has paid for display panels which were supplied to member libraries for use at exhibitions.

The British Library’s Patent Collections, Equipment, Facilities, and Staff

As for our own holdings, we are located in two reading rooms in the British Library. Science 1 South is for those specifications which can be used to protect inventions in Britain (British, European, PCT); while Science 1 North is for foreign patents, American, German and French predominate together with Japanese and other CD-ROMs and microforms. There are 20 workstations for CD-ROMs, with special machines for Russia, China and Japan which has two. There are also 8 Internet-only computer workstations, which are usually busy. There is also a special Internet work-station for Derwent Innovation Index’s (subscription) database which our patrons use free of charge. In all, we hold 44 million patents from 38 patent offices. Much is stored in the basement and in a reserve store a mile away. Everything is kept in numerical order within country, so a subject search using other sources is first necessary. Some foreign patent offices make multiple copies and store everything in their public search rooms by country and then by the International Patent Classification Some British researchers visit Munich occasionally to search the labor-intensive fruits of this huge project. However, the Internet’s growing resources may mark a change.

Each reading room has an enquiry desk with specialist staff (although overtime staff may come from other sections). South also has an issue desk and will take photocopy orders. Patents cannot be ordered from elsewhere to go to North, and if DIY or self-service copiers are not used then the material must be taken by staff to South. This is because of the design of the building, which encourages people to base themselves in South, and makes North look rather empty. There are seven non-professional staff who routinely help to staff the two enquiry desks and process queries on photocopy orders. Because they only work with patents, and they answer 120 phone calls daily, they quickly build up expertise. As the PCT and European systems are more popular than the diminished British national system, our staff are very aware of non-British material. The desk staff have their own chain of command and there are also many staff who handle the intake of paper, microforms and compact disks. Some staff also deal with sending out material to the PIN libraries, plus there are those who shelve used material.

The British Library has six professional librarians involved with patents, all located in a single room about 35 feet square. These are David Newton, who is the head of the Patents Information section; Sue Ashpitel, a part-timer who is in charge of online searching and also writes our publicity sheet; Armen Khachikian, who analyses electronic applications, and also works on online searching; Ian McKevitt, who works on online searching, is our chemist, and carries out some miscellaneous duties; Maria Lampert, who deals with difficult
enquiries from the reading room and handles most correspondence; and myself. There is no routine clerical support.

My own work is based around understanding all countries’ patent materials such as how they are published and indexed, or at least having a go at solving problems with their use, and to a lesser extent legal aspects. I issue notes whenever patent systems change; train staff; maintain the Internet site; lead and speak at our seminars; write articles; and am the “last resource” for difficult enquiries. I do enjoy it all. A new venture is monthly “patent searching clinics” where two members of staff help up to ten visitors who need to learn about searching. They get a half hour Powerpoint presentation, a half hour tour and then, after a demonstration of three databases (Esp@cenet, USPTO and the PCT Electronic Gazette) they are let loose for an hour, each on their own work-station, having a go while we advise them individually on their techniques. One reason for this is that we want to regain some of our lost readers, but another is a realisation that we are not just the national library but also the local depository library for a region with over 15 million people.

Thousands of enquiries go to the Patent Office rather than us. They have a dedicated room with staff taking telephone calls and e-mails and often replying from answers from the PCs in front of them. Because many do not think of consulting the British Library about patents, we only received 522 written enquiries in our financial year April 2000 to March 2001. This was 29% up on the previous year. 77% were received by e-mail, up from 73%. 75% were from Britain and 10% from the United States, but these figures are almost certainly an under-estimate of foreign enquiries, as many e-mails do not indicate their national origin, and only a few enquirers state where they live. Of course we welcome requests for help from depository libraries as well as direct from members of the public, preferably by e-mail on I am particularly interested in the older patents from across the world. Where relevant, we use our own in-house databases (compiled by myself), Intel for selected articles on intellectual property in journals held in stock (with over 5,200 entries), and Invent giving patent numbers for significant inventions (over 700), which is regularly updated whenever we answer queries on the parking meter or whatever. Increasingly, the Internet supplies (or hints at) the answers to many modern enquiries.

An Intranet was set up in the reading rooms in 1998, with some functions stripped out to hinder surfing, e-mailing and so on. This was incorporated in June 2001 into our public web site. The material is written from a librarian’s point of view and consists of three columns of links. The left-hand column has links to patents, trademarks and design patents, especially to databases. From my experience I can confidently state that it is the biggest list of such links in the world. The middle column consists of information about our own resources and services. The right-hand column has advice on searching techniques and starts from basics. It also includes much practical information on the old British designs and patents. I regularly surf looking for new sites or corrections to existing database URLs which I incorporate onto the HTML pages. Formerly I could update the Intranet pages within minutes using our own FTP. Now that revised pages have to go through checking stages, it can take weeks for changed pages to “go live”.

A fourth edition of our flagship publication, Introduction to patents information, will be coming out this Spring. This is a practical guide on how patent documents are organised, published and indexed. In August 1999, my own British patents of invention, 1617-1977: a guide for researchers was published, which again is a practical guide for both those carrying out academic research into the British patent system and for those searching by patent number, name or subject and interpreting the results. No other patent system has such a guide, and I must confess to some pride in it. There has also been a modest success for my two books popularising inventions, Inventing the 20th century and Inventing the 19th century.


In conclusion, I would like to invite any PTDL librarian or USPTO staff member, who comes to London to drop in and see us. As with my well-remembered attendance at two of your seminars we can all benefit from learning from each other. I would be delighted to answer enquiries of any sort, including requests for help, at