Remember talk of the paperless world? Such memories must ring hollow at the Bodleian. Just when communications are going ever more online, the place is now so full of paper that tens of thousands of books are being sent off to Cheshire and Wiltshire in a bid to avoid blocking the passages to stacks in Oxford.

The world--famous library, one of the oldest in Christendom, must store a copy of every book or periodical printed in Britain, which means three miles of new shelving each year.

Stories about deep passages underground being knee-deep in pornography may be urban myths but it is true that each and every top-shelf publication does indeed need filing and keeping for ever, along with everything else.

As for the underground passages, they are certainly not myths. Two of the New Bodleian's 11 levels of book stacks are underground and a passage, complete with a 1940s vaccuum-operated message-tube system, runs under Broad Street to the Radcliffe Camera.

Now Oxford University Library Services (OULS) is planning to spend between £50m-£60m on revamping the New Bodleian Library, opposite the Clarendon Building in Broad Street. That money is in addition to the £30m to be spent on a new depository in Osney Mead, which will be the centre of a new "hub and satellite" library system. A further £40m is to be spent at the new humanities library at the Radcliffe Infirmary site .

The trigger for the revamp of the New Bodleian, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and opened by George VI in 1940 (on which occasion, famously and embarrassingly, the silver key broke in the lock) was a damning safety report from the fire department.

Estates projects officer at OULS, Toby Kertley, said: "The building has 11 stories of stacks, but is essentially a steel structure clad in stone. At the time of building, such structures were considered fire-resistant.

"Now we are taking the opportunity to really improve the building as part of our strategy to integrate and rationalise the university's library services."

He added that the new scheme will retain the conveyor belt ferrying books under Broad Street - known as the "bicycle chain", since it is really a giant version of one.

The rationalisation of the library service consists of making sure that readers wanting particular books are more likely to go to the right place to find them, rather than to need them transferred to them from afar.

The New Bodleian, originally financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, was intended to last 100 years but was already full to the brim after just 60. Overflow was sent off to a temporary depository at Nuneham Courtenay; now that facility too, with its 1.2 million volumes, is full to the brim.

Lack of any chance of planning permission to expand in Nuneham Courtnay means that books are sent off for store in far-flung counties at a cost of about £110,000 a year.

The acting deputy director of OULS, David Perrow, said: "The university's library services have grown up piecemeal as a result of departments and faculties developing their own libraries independently of the Bodleian group."

All in all, therefore, dragging this many-tentacled and haphazardly-grown creature into the 21st century, and reshaping it into a library worthy of a world-class university, is proving a major exercise.

The aim is to maintain or even improve on the library service's ability to produce for a reader any one of its 11 million books within three hours in 80 per cent of cases.

Only last week, staff were nettled by two American Rhodes scholars complaining volubly about library provision at the Bodleian being antiquated and unworthy of a top university.

Mr Perrow said: "We have been talking for decades now about the possibility of the electronic revolution leading to fewer books and periodicals. But numbers of titles have increased, not decreased.

"Now predictions from the British Library suggest that academic publications might decrease in the next ten to 15 years, but there is no sign of recreational publications decreasing, as more and more of us have time to write books."

To some extent, too, the Internet means that more people want to see valuable books in library collections. Since the Internet acts as a sort of signpost to such books, more people learn that they are there to be studied. So they must remain both accessible and well preserved, highlighting a library's twin duty to conserve and to display.

Mr Perrow added that from earliest times the university has been continually finding itself short of space as ever more publications pour in. The situation may be critical now, but in a sense it has always been critical. He said: "This is just a point in our history."

Some might say that storing porn forever is political correctness gone mad, but Mr Perrow points out that many periodicals become of great interest to academics after they have been stored for, say, 30 years.

In any case, it is surely better than the kind of political correctness that the Bodleian has suffered in the past, when religious zealots destroyed books en masse. They did that to such an extent indeed that there remain only two out of the 300 volumes given to the university by Duke Humfrey of Gloucester in the 15th century.