Let's get together

April 2, 1999

The British Library needs to find creative partners if it is to be useful,says John Ashworth.

This summer, when the last of the collections moves into the new St Pancras building, the British Library, first envisioned in 1968, will be complete. This will happen just as libraries are undergoing the most momentous change since the invention of printing. In the age of the internet and digital transmission of information, what is a national library for?

In a knowledge-based society the main source of employment and wealth is the commercial exploitation of some form of intellectual property, be it a patent, a copyright, a registered design or a brand or trademark. Information and knowledge underpin those properties just as coal and steam power were the foundation of the 19th-century industrial revolution. This knowledge is stored in the heads of talented individuals, in the stored traces of past knowledge in our respective societies and above all in our libraries.

The British Library's collections, which grow daily, represent a store of past intellectual output equivalent to at least 150 million person years of intellectual effort.

How can this stored knowledge best be made available? Last summer, with the move nearing completion, the library carried out a public consultation exercise. This identified the need to extend the collections and include digital materials, to enhance services to individuals through reading rooms, remote document supply and web-based services, to collaborate with other libraries and to increase income without charging readers.

Now we have to make it happen. The library has little room for manoeuvre. Its grant was cut in each of the past three years and in the next three, while there has been some recognition of difficulties in the comprehensive spending review, it is far short of what it would need to carry on as before.

A corporate plan, published this summer, will allow for extra spending of Pounds 3 million a year on acquisitions, Pounds 1 million in the first year, rising to Pounds 1.5 million, on conservation, and Pounds 500,000 a year on developing partnerships. We also need capital for a digital library infrastructure after our private finance initiative failed.

The price of this is that some activities have to be reduced or done differently. Hence the strike that led to closure of the reading rooms in the past three weeks - now happily over. Hence, too, the conclusion that it can no longer pretend to its founder Panizzi's famous aspiration of universal collection. Instead, the library needs to create partnerships.

With this in mind, the library signed an agreement last year with the School of Oriental and African Studies designed to rationalise collection policies, ensure mutual access to its collections and to aid staff training and exchanges. The library has three other pilot projects in the pipeline.

Developments in ITmean that partnerships across the putative virtual library network are becoming possible. There is also wide recognition in government of the need for greater co-operation and coordination (take the Higher Education Funding Council for England's research support libraries programme, or the Department of Culture Media and Sport's request to the Library and Information Commission to look for ways of improving co-operation between libraries and with the educational sector).

If a world-class infrastructure for digital library services is to be developed in the UK, effective co-ordination is needed across all sectors. Similarly, the library needs a co-ordinated approach to the newest and greatest of global libraries - the internet - and to the management of legal deposits of electronically published material, promised by the government.

The British Library cannot fulfil these needs with private capital alone. There is not the necessary commercial return. It particularly will not work because of the importance to citizens in a knowledge-based society of keeping access to the information mines free. The only way to keep this access open is by placing greater emphasis on partnership. The library cannot, and should not, lead in everything if it is to provide a proper service in anything.

This article is based on a speech to SCONUL last week. John Ashworth is chairman of the board of the British Library.

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