The National Marine Biological Library (NMBL) is one of the largest marine reference libraries in the world. It holds over 4,500 journal titles, 15,000 books and supports access to thousands of electronic journal titles as well as historical literature, expedition reports, and a herbarium. The library and its collections are available for use by staff, students and MBA members.

The NMBL is the library of the MBA responsible for supporting the scientific work of the MBA and Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) researchers, MBA members, and the MBA’s education and communication strategies.  

The library is located at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth UK with stunning views of Plymouth Sound, the perfect inspiration for your marine studies or research!

If you are planning a visit, please get in touch or find out how to become a member of the MBA. Please visit the regulations tab to for an overview of the services you will have access to during your visit.

Watch our short video!

Search the Catalogue 


General library enquires: 
(email enquiries only)

Opening Hours

The NMBL is open to all staff and members of the Marine Biological Association:
Please refer to the home page for details.

Volunteer with us

Interested in volunteering? We always appreciate extra help!

History of the NMBL

With the National Marine Biological Library having seen a lot of changes in the last two years we thought we’d take a look back at the who’s, what’s and when’s of the library’s diverse history.

  • 1887

    Library founded

    The NMBL was founded to support the newly created Marine Biological Association. Read Heape's description of the early laboratory. 

  • 1889

    A public appeal for books and periodicals was made in the Directors Report.

    Did you know? To source stock, the library asked for donations in the local paper! Read the request in the Directors Report

  • 1928

    Allen and Harvey paper on the MBA Laboratory 

  • 1930

    Expansion of the Library buildings

    A new block was built specifically to house the library collection. Reception was on the ground and work space above (now the Southward Reading Room).

  • 1939

    World War II

    The spectacular location of the MBA also came with a price; during the Second World War the MBA became an unintended target adjacent to the Royal Citadel military base and suffered severe bomb damage. All research was put on hold and the aquarium was closed.

  • 1941

    Material moved offsite during the war

    All books and journals were moved to Hawkmoor House, near Tavistock, to protect them from potential damage during the war.
    Amazingly no books were lost or damaged! Items were moved back in 1946 and the aquarium reopened.

  • 1955

    Expansion of the Library buildings (again!)

    A second extension was required for the still expanding collection. The spectacular spiral staircase was built leading to a third floor.

    Did you know? The engraving at the base of the staircase inspired the current MBA logo!

  • 1967

    First librarian

    The first qualified librarian was appointed, and shortly after, two further information scientists were appointed to assemble a collection of marine pollution literature on which to base an external pollution information service.  This was done in response to a government request prompted by the Torrey Canyon oil pollution incident off Cornwall.

  • 1975

    Another expansion

    This time the building was extended out towards Plymouth Sound creating large work area with stunning views. The journal collection was now filling three floors!

  • 1988

    Formation of PML

    The Laboratories of the MBA and Institute of Marine Environmental Research (IMER) were merged to form the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML). The two libraries were brought under PML management and there was some movement of publications between sites and merging of stock.

  • 1996

    Received national status!

    The MBA Library was designated as the National Marine Biological Library (NMBL) in recognition of its role as a very specialised national resource.

  • 1999

    PML satellite library closes

    The satellite library at the PML West Hoe site closed and stock was moved back to NMBL. In 2001 work to consolidate stock from the PML West Hoe site was completed.

  • 2004

    NERC management

    MBA finalised an agreement with NERC to assume management of the NMBL.

  • 2013

    NMBL goes online!

    Now fully established in the technological era, NMBL goes online! The catalogue is now available on the internet for anyone to view.

  • 2015

    Grant from the Wolfson Foundation

    More building but of a different kind! With continued transfer of information services into the electronic field, NMBL began finding new innovative ways to use the floor space in the library. The Wolfson Training Suite was built and rolling stacks built to consolidate stock.

  • 2016

    Southward Reading Room

    The Southward Reading Room was officially opened by Eve Southward and in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Plymouth and the Windsor Herald who unveiled the MBA’s new coat of arms. This is on display on the balcony. The reading room is named after Professor Alan Southward who made a generous donation to the library.

  • 2017

    Continuing to advance!

    We have just created an exciting new open-plan reception area! Electronic resources provision continues to advance.


When you arrive, please sign in at the main MBA reception. You will be given a red library pass which allows you to move freely in and out of the library (for example up to the common room for coffee) throughout the day. Follow the blue signs to the library and other member areas in the building.

Please remember to register your vehicle at reception.


In the library

You will be greeted at the reception on the first floor. Please ask a member of staff here if you would like a tour or require assistance finding a particular item in stock. Otherwise feel free to explore on your own. Desk space is available on all three floors.

Wall maps and signs will indicate where different materials and subjects are located. It is the MBA's own classification system so please ask a member of library staff if you need help finding what you need. 

Please respect the library and fellow library users during your vist:

  • Please respect other library users by keeping noise to a minimum
  • Items must not be removed from the library (staff may take items to offices provided the full check out procedure is followed)
  • Please return used items to a trolley at the end of your visit
  • Keep your belongings tidy if you leave you desk in case other library users need the space next to you
  • You may take tea and coffee into the library but no food please
  • Keep your red library pass with you at all times, you will need it to get in and out of the library

If you have a special request such as a prior arrangement to view an old book or an Inter Library Loan, please speak to a librarian.


Upon leaving

Please remember to sign out and return your red library pass to the MBA reception. 

Opening Hours

The NMBL is open to all staff and members of the Marine Biological Association:
Please refer to the home page for details.

Search the Catalogue 

Help us raise essential funding to support the preservation and use of our special collection in research and outreach allowing it to inspire and delight people of all ages at the National Marine Biological Library now and for years to come.

Book adoption can be the perfect gift on a special occasion, a unique way to commemorate someone, their passion for Marine Science or even to celebrate an achievement.

We offer three levels of adoption which reflect the amount of conservation work needed for the items and their status in our collection. Typical problems include broken spines, detached boards and damaged sewing structures. Whilst raising funds for major repairs, items in the collection need stabilising by being placed into protective/archival boxes to contain loose parts and prevent further damage. If you wish to support conservation of any particular item in our collections please get in touch. We are very happy to discuss individual adoption options or other ways you can support the library's work.


Level 1 (£30)

You will receive an Adopt-a-book E-certificate

Conservation boxes will also feature a donation plaque with your name on the front

Level 2 (£150)

You will receive an Adopt-a-book E-certificate

We will associate your name with the adopted book in the online library catalogue and your donation will be acknowledged on the NMBL and MBA websites

Level 3 (£500+)

You will receive an Adopt-a-book E-certificate

We will associate your name with the adopted book in the online library catalogue and your donation will be acknowledged on the NMBL and MBA websites

You will receive acknowledgement for your donation in the MBA’s annual report and a tour of the library’s special collection

Books currently for adoption

Stackhouse, J. Nereis Britannica; or a botanical description of the British marine plants, in Latin and English: accompanied with drawings from nature. London 1795

The book needs some internal cleaning and paper repairs. Level 2 (£150)

Wallace, A.R. The geographical distribution of animals, with a study of the relations of living and extinct faunas as elucidating the past changes of the earth's surface. London 1876 (2 Vols)

Both volumes need re-attachment of boards, re-backing and consolidation of binding. Level 2 (£150)

Parry, W.E. Journal of a voyage for the discovery of a north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, performed in the years 1819-1820 in His Majesty's Ships "Hecla" and "Gripper", under the orders of William Edward Parry, R.N., F.R.S., and Commander of the Expedition. London 1821

The book needs re-backing and internal cleaning. It has some lose leaves and some damage to individual pages. Level 3 (£500+)

Slabber, Martinus. Natuurkundige Verlustigingen, behelzende Microscopise Waarneemingen van In- en Uitlandse Water- en Land-Dieren. Haarlem 1778

Work giving microscopical observations on marine and other invertebrates. 18 parts, each with a fine hand-coloured copperplate by R. Muys after P.M. Brasser, or M. Slabber, each part with a dedication leaf.

The book needs re-backing, some consolidation of its spine, internal surface cleaning and some paper repairs. Level 3 (£500+)

Choose level of adoption
Choose a book to adopt
Name on gift certificate

Adopt-a-book FAQs

  • What do I get in return for my donation?

There are three levels of rewards. For a £30 conservation box, you or the recipient will receive an Adopt-a-book e-certificate. Conservation boxes will also feature a donation plaque on the front. For any donations from £150 onwards, you will receive an e-certificate and we will associate your name with the adopted book in the library catalogue. Your donation will also be acknowledged on the NMBL and MBA websites. For donations from £500 upwards, in addition to the above, you will receive acknowledgement in the MBA’s annual report and a tour of the library’s special collection at a time convenient to you.

  • What is a conservation box?

A conservation box encases the damaged item providing protection to the sleeves (it has a raised base so they are not pulling on the spine), the boards (by keeping them upright) and simply contains items that may have lose parts. The box is hand-made specifically to meet the book’s measurements by a trained, local professional. Conservation boxes will also feature a donation plaque on the front.

  • My adoption is a gift for someone else, can I put their name on the certificate?

Yes, simply type their name into the ‘Name on gift certificate’ field on the online checkout page. If you are concerned, send us an e-mail to make sure and we will ensure the certificate is sent to the right person.

  • My adoption is a gift for someone else, can you e-mail the certificate to them?

Of course, simply let us know by sending us an e-mail to after you have made your order.

  • Can I have my certificate printed?

Not currently but we hope to provide this service very soon.

  • I don’t have a Paypal account, how else can I pay?

Don’t worry, if you have a debit or credit card, you can still pay online via paypal. Simply choose the grey ‘Pay with debit or credit card’ option and it will take you to a guest checkout. You will not need to log in or set up an account. If you experience any difficulty, or for alternative methods of payment, please call us on 01752 426275.

  • How quickly will my order be processed?

After receiving your donation, we will endeavour to send your e-certificate within one week. Please note that we are a small team so during busy times it may take a little longer.

  • Who to contact for more information?

If you have any other questions about NMBL’s online bookshop please don’t hesitate to contact us on 01752 426275 or e-mail

  • Will you let me know the conservation progress of my chosen item?

Of course, we can send you an image of your chosen title in its conservation box with a plaque with your name on the front. For more serious repairs, it can take some time and some items will have to be taken offsite for intensive repair works, but we can provide updates when available as well as before and after photos of the book.

  • Can I buy more than 1 conservation box?

Of course but unfortunately you will have to process them one at a time via the order form. We are working on making this more streamlined for multiple adoptions.

  • Where can I view other titles in your collection to choose from?

Click here to view our main catalogue. You can search for a particular title or author, or narrow your search results by selecting ‘Old books (1921 and before)’ under the location.

Search the Catalogue 

Use or online database to find the books or journals you’re looking for.

Become a Member

Members of the MBA get a range of exclusive benefits including access to the NMBL as well as supporting marine biology.  


Staff, Research Fellows, Associate Fellows and MBA Students:

MBA Staff, Research Fellows, Associate Fellows and Students (MSc, PhD) have access to all Library services whenever needed, with access controlled by key fob.

MBA Members:

MBA Members are welcome to use the library during its normal opening hours. Members have no borrowing rights (as it is a reference library), and have access to publisher licensed electronic material on site only. Photocopying facilities and British Library requests are available for a fee only.

Casual Visitors:

External visitors who are not members of the MBA are able to arrange a visit by special arrangement with the NMBL. There is a charge (currently £12 per day) for access to the NMBL.

For all members and visitors, access to the Rare Books, the Archives and the Gallery is restricted: they must be accompanied by a member of staff to enter these areas.


MBA Staff, Research Fellows, Associate Fellows and MBA Students can borrow material from the NMBL stock, however, borrowed items are requested not to be removed from the Citadel Hill Laboratory.

When borrowing an item, users must either fill in a borrowing card or ask a member of library staff to record the loan.

Items which cannot be borrowed include:·

  • Items held in the Rare Books Gallery
  • Archival material
  • Any other items deemed too fragile by NMBL Staff (at their discretion)

There is a small Lending Collection kept in the Southward Reading Room, and these books can be taken home to read, once signed out.


MBA Staff, Research Fellows, Associate Fellows and MBA Students have access to library licensed electronic material.  Material is authenticated via the staff log-in (Shibboleth) and can be used seamlessly both within the building and remotely. PML staff also have access to library licensed electronic material in accordance with the current MBA/PML SLA.

Access to electronic material is for research and private study only in accordance with current copyright legislation. It is responsibility of the user to comply with copyright terms as outlined on the Library User Registration Form and on the NMBL Webpages.


The onus is on users to comply with copyright regulations. Copyright notices are displayed in the vicinity of the photocopier.

For non-commercial purposes:

MBA Staff (and other authorised personnel) must use a PIN number, which will be supplied by the Finance Office. They are responsible for ensuring that there is no unauthorised use of that PIN number by not giving it out freely.

PML staff will have their own PIN number.

Additional costs apply to the copying of material from the MBA Archives (currently from £5 per item.)

For commercial purposes:

Commercial rates apply for the copying of library or archival material for commercial purposes.


MBA Staff, Research Fellows, Associate Fellows and MBA Students are entitled to free BL Requests. PML staff and any other person must pay for this service.

Requests can be made via the NMBL email using the request form sent to the user when joining.  The form includes a copyright declaration which must be signed and sent to the library. When a BL request is made and received, it is NMBL policy to provide a pdf copy which is for the intended user only who must comply with copyright law.

Library policy

Terms of Use