Increased deposits on the next century

March 8, 1996

Sir Anthony Kenny defends the British Library's radical proposals to protect the integrity of the national archive by including non-print material.

It is the duty of the British Library to maintain the national published archive of the written word. To enable it to carry out this mission, the Copyright Act of 1911 and its successors provide that the library is to receive gratis a copy of "every book published in the United Kingdom". This system of legal deposit provides the cornerstone of the library's British collections.

When virtually all publication was as print on paper, the 1911 Act was adequate for the creation and preservation of a comprehensive national collection. The recent growth of publication in microform and electronic media means that the system needs reform if the national published archive is to be maintained into the 21st century and beyond. At the end of January the library submitted to the Department of National Heritage a proposal for radical new legislation on legal deposit.

The issues which are raised by the petition extend far beyond the role of the library itself. While the 1911 Act placed the library in a special position, it also gave rights of legal deposit to five other libraries: the national libraries of Scotland and Wales, the university libraries of Oxford and Cambridge, and the library of Trinity College Dublin. The library's proposal has been prepared with the support and cooperation of these libraries, and it seeks to secure for them too the means of continuing their collections into the electronic age. The development of new media means that a comprehensive national published archive cannot be restricted to the preservation of written texts, whether in tangible or electronic form, but must contain material which was far from the concerns of the legislators of 1911. The current provision for legal deposit makes no provision for the building of a national archive of sound and film. The library's own National Sound Archive, and the collections of the British Film Institute have had to rely on purchase and voluntary deposit. The library's proposal, worked out in conjunction with the BFI, seeks to place these archives on the same solid footing of legal deposit as traditional collections of written publications.

The current UK legal deposit legislation does not allow for anything other than print on paper as a publishing medium. It would, in theory, be possible to extend the scope of legal deposit by amending the definition of "book" to include, for example CD-Roms (which are treated as books by current legislation in Canada). However, it is impossible to anticipate future media of publication and such piecemeal amendment would ensure that the new statute would be antiquated as rapidly as the 1911 one has been. Accordingly, the library proposes that the legislation, rather than attempting to provide a comprehensive definition of "publication", should set in place statutory procedures for extending categories of depositable material. The statute should provide for subsidiary regulations to be drawn up as appropriate to bring specific media and forms of publication within the ambit of the legal deposit system. In this way it will be possible to cope with media as yet unimagined. New regulations will be able to amend or repeal previous regulations without the governing primary legislation requiring amendment. Non-print material currently published can be divided into four broad classes. The first consists of texts in microform; the second of texts in hand-held electronic form; the third of sound and video recordings, and the fourth of databases published online.

Items in the first two classes are not too unlike printed texts, traditionally collected by libraries: they are sometimes called "glass books" - books to be read from a glass screen rather than from a paper page. Items in the fourth class are the ones most distant from traditionally library collections, and present the most serious problems with respect to publication and archiving. Indeed, the technological and economic context of this form of electronic publishing at the present time is in too great a state of flux for it to be yet possible to draw up appropriate regulations governing legal deposit.

The new legislation should be broad enough in principle to permit databases published online to be brought within its ambit in due course. But the immediate extension of the legal deposit system should cover only microforms, CD-Roms and other hand-held electronic texts, and sound and film recordings. As soon as the primary legislation is in place these media should be brought within the system by regulations to take immediate effect. At a later time, when the publication of electronic journals, for instance, has reached a stable state, regulations for their legal deposit should be issued by the Secretary of State after consultation with both producers and consumers.

In an environment of constantly extending networks, it is important that any extension of legal deposit should go hand in hand with safeguards for the rights of producers and publishers. After extensive consultation with rights holders, the library has concluded that the most acceptable form of deposit for electronic texts is the one which most closely parallels the system for printed texts. In the case of CD-Roms, for instance, one copy should be deposited gratis in each of the copyright libraries for consultation at a single stand-alone workstation. Any networking should be permitted only by agreement with the rights holders, and any charges made by libraries for such consultations must include royalty payments to be passed on to rights holders.Unless legal deposit is extended as the library proposes, it will be impossible for the national library system to continue to maintain the national published archive. The Oxford English Dictionary can provide an example to illustrate the problem. The first edition of that work was published only in hard copy. The second edition was published in 20 printed volumes which were deposited in the library, but also on a CD-Rom which was not covered by legal deposit. The third edition, in the next century, may well appear only in electronic form. If so, and if the law remains unchanged, the Library will lose the right it had hitherto enjoyed to acquire an item so central to the functions of a national reference library.

Already a large amount of non-print material has slipped through the net, and may be permanently lost to the national archive, because of the anachronistic nature of the 1911 legislation. Other countries are ahead of the UK in this respect: France, Germany, Norway, Canada and the United States already have legislation for the legal deposit of one or more categories of non-print material. Reform here is urgent, and the library hopes fervently that new legislation can be introduced before the end of the present parliament. It will also be important to plug the gaps which already exist in the national published archive because of the inadequacy of the 1911 Act. This could not be done by retrospective legislation, but funding for the clearance of this backlog could be a suitable object for funding from the Millennium Commission or some other arm of the National Lottery.

The library is looking forward next year to taking over its splendid new premises from the Department of National Heritage. It is confident that in the 21st century the nation will be proud of the St Pancras Library long after the travails of its construction have been forgotten. But the extension of legal deposit is no less important than a successful move into St Pancras. For our successors in the next millennium will judge the present board of the library and those responsible for libraries in the Department of National Heritage above all by their success or failure in coming to terms with the electronic age.

Sir Anthony Kenny is chairman of the British Library.

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