Dam for the data deluge

The British Library is rising to the challenges posed by the creative chaos of the digital age, says outgoing chief executive Lynne Brindley

July 19, 2012

The banking system may have lost public trust, but great libraries such as the British Library, which contain the DNA of civilisation, have the public interest built into their core values.

Those values - which also include independence, integrity and longevity - must be maintained. But as I reflect on my glorious, exciting and rewarding 12 years as chief executive of the British Library, it strikes me that the challenge for such institutions today is to continue to reposition their role in the "always on" digital culture, which submerges scholars, consumers and citizens alike in a deluge of data.

The British Library's purpose has always been to acquire, preserve, organise and give access to information: the intellectual, scientific and cultural memory of the nation, exercised through statute. Our far-sighted predecessors ensured that any book published in the UK could be made available in a reading room in perpetuity.

Today our remit extends into the digital sphere, with prospective regulations set to charge us with avoiding a "digital black hole" in material relating to the 21st century.

But while digital technologies have broken down many barriers to knowledge and are making it much easier to access information, the collection and long-term stewardship of the resulting archive is an enormous task, and it is right to question what is worth saving for the future.

The honest answer is that we really do not know. The ephemera of the past are valuable today - newspapers deemed disposable 24 hours after they were printed are now considered "the first draft of history". Are tweets and blogs today's equivalents? The work and archives of authors and politicians are increasingly multimedia. We intend to harvest websites from across UK domains to ensure that they will be permanently available. Other countries will take equivalent responsibilities through their own national libraries, creating a global digital repository.

The digital environment provides an immense opportunity to democratise access to content, and great libraries have a particular responsibility to open up their legacy collections - through digitisation - to the world.

Copyright rules will need to be reformulated to allow this to happen, and public-private partnerships, as well as public investment, will be necessary to realise our vision in a challenging financial climate.

The immensity of the information deluge we face underlines the value of navigation, filtering, quality "kite-marking" and expert mediation. For many, less is more, but libraries need also to ensure that users are made fully aware of the vast, glorious array of data available, so that creative intellects can make new and illuminating connections.

We also need new ways of exercising quality control - not to restrict access or to make information less democratic, but to emphasise what is significant (again, with transparency and openness). These have always been quintessential roles of the librarian or curator.

Many observers are concerned about the emergence of "digital divides" through which some people are cut off from the fully connected world. Libraries at all levels must play a critical role in digital literacy, with an emphasis on developing in users the skills of analysis, critical thinking and assessment of sources that form the core competencies for participation in the information society.

Libraries also have a key continuing role to play in ensuring the trust, provenance, authentication and peer review of research sources. These are tasks that are clearly well beyond the search engines' "two clicks" competence.

These developments will inevitably have implications for the skills we require of our own staff. At the British Library, we employ specialist "digital curators", "digital archaeologists" and a "Wikipedian-in-residence". I would argue that it will not be long before that kind of expertise becomes part of the fundamental skill set of everyone who works in a library.

And what of the future of the physical library building? Some might suggest that bricks and mortar no longer have a place in the digitally connected world, but nothing could be further from the truth. As we know at the British Library, a sense of place in the digital world is an incredibly important and scarce resource. Libraries provide a space for the exchange of ideas, collaborative working and public discourse. Camaraderie, community and the solidarity of experience among library users are also evident from those working in or around our reading rooms. Digital "companionship" is important, but it is not sufficient to create a vibrant, democratic and intellectual community.

We are probably entering a near-permanent state of transition in which the physical and digital co-exist - woven (mashed?) together in ways to be discovered at multiple levels through different cultures and behaviours. Let us embrace this creative chaos while retaining enduring values and steadfast purpose.

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