2010 Bookseller Resource Guide
The British Library
The Internet raises new challenges for acquisitions. At one time, newspapers were not deemed worth preserving. Shakespeare was once considered too ephemeral to be collected, as his works were “merely drama.” “So, you have to take a step back and not try to judge your times too much,” said Dr. Richard Price, head of modern British collections. Recent legislation has formalized a long-held view by the library that it needs to collect digital materials such as CD-ROMs and even the Internet itself.
“With legal deposit,” Price continued, “you can bank on about 100,000 new British titles coming into the library each year. But wait until you get to the Internet. It’s reckoned there’s six million published websites in U.K. web space alone. There’s no question of us collecting in-depth; you prioritize sites you think really must be collected. We want to collect ones that have research-level documents within them—items that are liable to be the subjects of research later on, which is a guessing game, but we’re moving further down the collection-development policy. And finally we want to collect things that are either exemplary or excellent within the mode of the web itself, innovative in some sense, so we can get a flavor of what the web can do. It’s all very theoretical at the moment. We have to test these as time goes on. We’ve set up several pilots to see what we can do, to get used to this new kind of publishing, to build a relationship with the people concerned. The biggest challenge is how to preserve digital information. There are also questions about the ownership of digital objects to which you subscribe. You subscribe to it, you deliver it to the reading rooms, but you don’t own it. You don’t house it. That is a preservation problem, and something that will have to be addressed at some point. But that’s one of the strengths of the library—to apply to what on the face of it is a brand-new problem, but in other ways is actually a problem of understanding and formalizing knowledge. That’s one of the areas where extremely traditional skills can be mapped onto extremely modern challenges. The book in some form or other is with us, and even if it isn’t, then the accumulated collection we have here needs custodians. We look on the collection not as objects in their own right but as information, and if the word does go much more digital than even we imagine, then we want to be part of that too, because we’re about information and knowledge, and we’ll just have to rise to that challenge.”
“People…expect whatever we collect today to be available in 200 or 300 years,” explained Dr. Field. “We’re here to serve the present, but also to serve the future and to the best of our ability predict what the future is going to hold. And that’s really very hard. The publishing industry can’t predict what they’re going to look like in a few years’ time, and that’s a major driver for what libraries will look like in a few years’ time. Change, flexibility, versatility have to be embedded essentially in the philosophy we bring to managing this great cultural institution. So we have to simultaneously look backward, look to the present, and look to the future. And there aren’t many agencies and organizations in the public or private sector that have to do all of that at the same time.”
The digital revolution has proved both a dream and challenge. At the very time when central government was demanding greater public access to the collections, technology produced the key to letting millions pore over unique and irreplaceable texts with no ensuing damage. It’s a concept known as “Turning the Pages,” developed by British Library staff, that is proving a winner both in exhibitions onsite and on the library website.
“My job has always been about interpreting the collections using technology,” explains Clive Izard, head of creative services. “That began with slides…We went through a dabbling with videotape, and we’ve ended up with computers that offer just about every opportunity we could possibly want.” The digital versions have had an unexpected effect. “The more you supply these surrogates,” Field said, “the more the demand to access the originals goes up; it’s one of the paradoxes of the digital world.”
The Turning the Pages technology is an illusion, Izard said. “It’s like having a rare book in front of you, it’s a breathtaking experience that has proved that people want to read books.” The biggest job is not making the digital facsimile, it’s “what is needed to maintain that file. Future-proofing. That’s huge. When we put Turning the Pages online, we nearly broke our server. It’s still the most visited [area] on our site. And the latest technology allows us to get much more clever with it. We don’t just zoom in on details, but have windows that turn Latin into English, or whatever language you want. There’s a thirst among the general public, because of things we’ve done through broadcast and publishing to promote books and learning, so they want to come and look at libraries, and look at collections in a different way. Libraries haven’t always been best placed to exhibit their books. Technology has allowed us to do that. We’re in a unique position, historically, in terms of technology allowing us to give people access. More people can look at books in more ways. People are exchanging information, comparing ideas, and passing stuff on.”
That long-held cliché of the librarian as somehow detached from the world and immune to technology is now looking pretty threadbare. What is most impressive about the British Library and its staff is how they have adapted to such rapid and fundamental change and embraced it. There’s no going back. “The fuse is lit,” Izard said.
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Steve Hare collects all things Penguin (the books, not the birds) and recently became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in the U.K. He is a regular contributor to this magazine.