'Access' is barbarism

July 13, 2001

Amid reports that the British Library lacks space and resources, those who visit the St Pancras reading rooms will find themselves confronted by a glossy consultation document, New Strategic Directions , and a so-called consultation survey, Help Shape our Future , which look like the work of an authoritarian government going through the motions of democracy.

The failure of universities to cater adequately for the research needs of their employees for more than a generation has made the St Pancras reading rooms indispensable to those working in humanities. The library’s policy of acquiring most serious works in every major discipline has made it a leading resource for scholars throughout the English-speaking world and beyond.

But this remains obscure to the self-interested management committee of the British Library, which, lacking more than a token professional librarian or two on its staff, plainly has no understanding of the needs of the reader.

Access, unsurprisingly, is one of its buzzwords. For the St Pancras reading rooms, numbers of users rather than the quality of use are the self-regarding focus of interest. It is indeed already not uncommon to wait in a queue while highly specialised academic library staff patiently respond to first-time visitors with inquiries more suitable for a public library.

The greatest failure to understand the purpose of a national library lies in the grotesque, indeed barbarian, assumption that the number of times a book is used is related to the desirability of its acquisition or retention. The consultation document reports that “modern English-language materials are the most frequently used in reading rooms” and concludes that the purchase of foreign-language materials, which “are generally used to a far lesser extent” (a statement that conceals the fact that in recent years their use has probably increased), should be cut back drastically.

The cuts will not be restricted to their immediate object, because the value of all other existing holdings and new purchases in the same discipline will be automatically diminished.

The British Library will damage a national asset if it ignores international works, argues David Wells.

There will no longer be any justification for holding priceless early printed books and manuscripts if these can no longer be studied in situ with the aid of the relevant modern scholarly literature that is often not in English. The management seeks to place the decision in a narrowly linguistic context, saying the library has a statutory obligation to preserve UK publications. But this conveniently ignores the large quantity of material in English published in the rest of the world that has to be purchased in any case.

It is a crudely chauvinistic view of language purchase far removed from the attitudes of the Victorian and Georgian managers, who reflected the imperialist times in their division of literature into “classical literature”, “English literature” and “other literature”, but at the same time were wise enough to know that it was universal acquisition that mattered in terms of posterity.

Under the steerage of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the present managers aim to place the library’s collections “on everyone’s virtual bookshelf - at work, at school, at college, at home”.

Plainly the influence of the contemporary fashions of university management is at work here - an obsession by bureaucrats, themselves uneducated in any real sense of the word, with measuring the unquantifiable benefits of education with image and process rather than substance. The mentality of the intellectual theme-park that, Dome-like, offers an equal welcome to football oaf and scholar, has nothing whatever to do with the function of the world’s greatest national library.

Books will continue to be a major means of transmitting knowledge for the foreseeable future. But the library acknowledges that the long-term view of how people use libraries is unclear. It might, therefore, consider continuing to spend its restricted resources on what it has done supremely well for almost 250 years, the acquisition of all worth-while literature in all serious fields regardless of language or provenance. Only then will it ensure that future library users do not have cause to curse a generation that betrayed its heritage and debased a world-class cultural institution to the lowest common denominator of populist mediocrity.

David Wells is a professor in the school of languages, literature and culture at Birkbeck College, University of London.   

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