Anatomy of the national archive

Towards the Digital Library - Inside the British Library

August 21, 1998

In the mid-1990s the British Library has undergone a most fundamental and transfiguring upheaval in the quarter century since its establishment under act of Parliament in 1972. It has also moved home, packing up 12 million of its books and periodicals, 39 million patents, two million maps and over a million sound recordings, and transporting them in 5,600 van trips from Bloomsbury and elsewhere to the Euston Road.

Those seeking a gory postmortem of the protracted period of construction on the St Pancras site, or of the problematic process of fitting out and taking occupation of the new building, will need to turn elsewhere than Alan Day's latest book, Inside the British Library, the follow-up to his two earlier studies, The British Library: A Guide to its Structure, Publications, Collections and Services and The New British Library. To date, the most succinct elucidation of the politics behind the 36 years of the site's development has come in the pamphlet The British Library and the St Pancras Building, written by the then chairman of the British Library Board, Sir Anthony Kenny in 1994; while the construction itself is best illustrated, in every sense, in the stoical architect Colin St John Wilson's own book, The Design and Construction of the British Library.

In the third volume of his trilogy, which "carries the story to just beyond the library's long-delayed but triumphant partial arrival at St Pancras", Day, former head of the department of library and information studies at Manchester Polytechnic, gallops through the infamous hiccups of the construction period, the mobile shelving crisis of May 1991, the flooding and water penetration of July 1992, the rewiring of December 1993, documenting the story mainly by clippings from the national press. What is striking is how recent and yet how anachronistic appear the doom prophets of the Daily Telegraph and the Regular Readers Group. Day's tone is altogether more upbeat, tempered always by the characteristic caution of his profession.

His real focus is not the construction but the operation of the new British Library. The contemporaneous internal reorganisation of the directorates of the library, the restructuring of its management systems, and the formation and reformation of policies on how best to manage and develop its collections and provide its services to its users, have been quite as transforming as its move to St Pancras. Day's charting of the various codes of service that the library has produced over the past decade and, in particular, its working towards the definition of millennial strategic objectives, reveal the scope of the futurology that has needed to be faced. Unlike the new building, these restructurings and redefinitions are not complete: inevitably Day catches many of the big questions in mid-debate.

The vital extension, for example, of the terms of legal deposit to cover electronic and other non-print formats is an argument that is set to run and run. As the library engages itself in proposals to secure the statutory deposit of CD-Roms, sound and film recordings, necessary for it to continue to maintain the national archive, urgent thought is also having to be given to the more intractable question of information stored only in online databases. Day's concise survey of the library's efforts in these areas awaits the imminent reporting back of the working party set up following the consultation paper on the Legal Deposit of Publications produced by the then Department of National Heritage in February 1997.

At the same time, the library faces some hard decisions on coping with the processing and storage of the colossal quantity of traditional print media inundating the Legal Deposit Office. Charged with thinking the unthinkable, the Smethurst review, chaired by the former deputy chief executive of the British Library Board, concluded in March 1997 that "it is no longer possible for any single library to acquire, maintain and preserve the total output of British publishers". The positivism of Day's response is refreshing ("at least the nettle of sheer physical and financial impossibility of an all-embracing inclusive acquisition policy has been grasped"), but he concedes that there is still much talking and working to be done on selection processes and collaboration with other major libraries to ensure a continued national public archive.

Then, of course, there is the touchy subject of charging for admission to the St Pancras reading rooms, on which Day is pragmatic but again in danger of being immediately outstripped by developments. His coverage takes the controversy as far as July 1997, when he could safely conclude that the status quo had been maintained, before the British Library Board's current strategic review revived its warning noises on charging in light of a potential budgetary shortfall of Pounds 20 million within five years.

The remaining bulk of Day's text is made up of a comprehensive enumeration of the extensive range of services, publications and products which make up the 1990s British Library, organised under their restructured and evolving new directorates: bibliographic services and document supply, reader services and collection development, collection management, research and innovation centre, information systems and special collections. His research methodology follows the pattern of his two earlier volumes on the library: his primary sources, government enquiries and reports, library policy documents and consultation papers, newspaper and journal articles, internal newsletters and press releases, are all carefully documented, summarised and, in places, reproduced. His thumbnail sketches of each department and area of operation are descriptive rather than evaluative, avoiding the mire of professional controversy and personal acrimony that accompanies such restructurings, in pursuit of the broader picture. This makes for a somewhat dry read for the casual but inquisitive reader, though it provides an ideal primer, or thoroughly annotated bibliography, on the national library service at a key moment in its history, for the librarianship or information studies student or for the catch-up by the practising professional.

Day is able, unavoidably, to produce only a brief chapter and a hasty appendix on the library's "Initiatives for Access" programme, which cuts across and potentially revolutionises so many fundamental areas of operation. Originally planned for summer 1997 but actually appearing in spring 1998, the library's handsomely produced Towards the Digital Library provides a comprehensive overview of a range of library-sponsored projects to explore the application of digital and networking technologies to preserve and extend access to its collections. The IfA has already been subsumed within the wider "Digital Library Programme", itself in mid-phase of a government private finance initiative, with the ebullient over-arching aim of establishing "a critical mass of digitally held documents, made available on demand, within an organised and ordered service framework, to a user anywhere in the world at any time".

Towards the Digital Library constitutes a series of detailed case studies, with technical specifications and some attractive illustrations, of a range of ongoing developments which take us a little way to this optimistic vision. Schemes covered include digital imaging projects such as the construction of the Electronic Beowulf and the "St Pancras Treasures" digitisation project, allowing public access to high-quality computer-animated surrogates of, for example, the Lindisfarne Gospels and Sforza's Book of Hours; document management systems, including processes for cataloguing CD-Roms and image-based text index and storage projects such as that trialed on the library's Catalogue of Seals; and network services, covering "Portico", the library's online information server, the online public access catalogue, and the automated request processing system.

The volume concludes with a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece by Lorcan Dempsey, director of the UK Office for Library and Information Networking, on shifting notions of place and space, physical and cyber, within the library environment. As Day puts it, "with free electronic access to an enormous database of bibliographic information, followed by broadening electronic access to documents themselves, or to the means of ordering documents, the question of access to physical reading rooms in central London almost pales into insignificance". Which at least moves the goalposts in the debate on charging.

Christopher Phipps is administrator, London Library.

Towards the Digital Library: The British Library's Initiatives for Access Programme

Editor - Leona Carpenter, Simon Shaw and Andrew Prescott
ISBN - 0 7123 4540 X
Publisher - British Library
Price - £20.00
Pages - 256

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