Gone are the days when the library was just for quiet study. Anna Fazackerley looks at the revolution taking place at the British Library and in UK universities.
Tradition has it that a librarian should be a mousy, rather old-fashioned, desk-bound creature. Referring to this stereotype is a sure-fire way to irritate Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the rapidly changing British Library.
"The stereotype has always been wrong, but now it is so out of touch," she says, a trace of impatience evident beneath the friendly tone.
"You need outward-going people, with really sharp business skills and a huge understanding of technology and the implications of the internet."
This is a fair description of Brindley herself - not only the first woman but also the first librarian to take the reins at the national library.
While she says she is proud of the fact that she works for a public-sector organisation, it is clear that much of what she does there is driven by an essentially commercial mentality.
Before joining the library in 2000, Brindley spent many years in the university world, with management roles at the London School of Economics and Aston University, followed by a high-profile position as pro vice-chancellor and university librarian at Leeds University. This first-hand knowledge of academia is vital for her new job because the higher education sector in general and researchers in particular represent well over 50 per cent of the library's activity.
However, she is quick to point out that three of her most formative years were spent in the private sector. Before her stints at the LSE and Leeds, Brindley was a senior management consultant at KPMG, a post she took up in 1990 as a personal test. She explains that she knew there was often an assumption that people working in the public sector were somehow substandard, and she wanted to prove that she could hold her own in the more ruthless commercial world.
"That experience sharpened my skills in terms of big project management and quicker results," she says. It gave her a "just get on with it" mentality that, she observes, is often lacking in a bureaucratic university environment.
Now Brindley wants to turn the British Library into a charity that thinks like a business. It already does this better than its competitors: it is the only national library in the world that generates £30 million of its own income. But she will inevitably have to keep fighting for cash to keep up with the changing needs of the library's users.
Perhaps her biggest challenge is developing the library's digital capabilities.
Brindley is especially proud of a deal that was struck recently with software company Adobe and science publisher Elsevier to set up a service to provide readers with scanned pages on request. These will be sent direct to their computer desktop within two hours, saving them the journey to St Pancras in central London, or waiting days for the book or document to arrive in the post.
The ultimate goal - which Brindley concedes is still some way off - is for the entire British Library to be available on demand. This is no small ambition. The collection includes 150 million items, stretching over 625km of shelving, and it is growing every year. "That doesn't replace the need for our wonderful flagship building," she adds. "It's not an either/or. But the notion that the library can be virtually available to the world is something I am trying to make a reality."
Yet this digital mission is not just about easy access; it is also about preserving electronic data in the same way that we already preserve books.
This is particularly important for the future of science. A vast amount of scientific data is now published exclusively online, on websites, in e-journals and in open archives. Unless someone is systematically identifying, capturing and mapping this information, at some stage it will simply disappear.
Following a vigorous campaign, the library has succeeded in pushing through primary legislation for electronic legal deposit, meaning that as well as storing a copy of every print publication produced in Britain and Ireland, it will also be responsible for keeping copies of electronic material.
Bearing in mind the vast scope of the worldwide web, this is a potentially infinite task, and Brindley's team is still working out exactly how to get to grips with it.
"You can be overwhelmed by the size of it," she says. "But in 50 years'
time our grandchildren will appreciate what we've done."
The first and most essential step is to build the digital infrastructure to collect this electronic information and ensure that it is accessible years down the line when technology has moved on yet again. "We really need substantial funding to complete that," Brindley stresses.
Whether or not this will be granted remains to be seen, and the library will be competing alongside everyone else when the Government allocates its spending review funding later this year. Its case will be complicated by the breadth of its mission - it sits in the portfolio of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but much of its work fits more neatly into the brief of the Department for Education and Skills or the Office of Science and Technology.
Nevertheless, Brindley is taking the fact that her organisation got a mention in Chancellor Gordon Brown's ten-year investment framework for science and innovation, published in July, as a sign of general political goodwill towards what she is trying to do.
Such unknowns aside, the library's plans to embrace the digital future will inevitably strengthen its position as the giant in the higher education library world. Brindley admits that there may be some background resentment as the Government pushes for cash-strapped library services to become more and more centralised.
However, her bottom line is that the sector must do whatever serves research best.
She argues that because research operates on such a large scale now, stretching across disciplines and across countries, the "cottage industry" concept of libraries must also change.
This means libraries working together much more closely, and pooling rather than duplicating their resources.
Brindley insists that she is keen to protect the autonomy of individual higher education institutions. But she is not about to take a back seat to soothe individual egos. "Because of our scale, we must and will take a leadership role," she concludes firmly.