Ruth Scurr

May 11, 2007

This week, for the first time, I have an e-mail from 10 Downing Street in my inbox. Not an invitation to tea, but confirmation that I have added my signature to an e-petition in support of keeping the British Library free of charge to users.

The e-petitions service (http://petitions.pm. gov.uk) was launched last November as a modern and more convenient parallel to the traditional presentation of petitions at the door of No 10. Any UK citizen can create a petition and collect signatures via the website, which is promoted as "a highly popular innovation in the way that people communicate with the Government and with the Prime Minister's Office".

Of course, not all petitions are accepted. According to the site, about one in six submitted since the launch has had to be rejected on grounds of obscenity, potential to cause offence, libel or duplication. Initially, there was some tolerance of joke petitions, but this has disappeared now that the service has become so popular (attracting more than 3,381 petitions and 2,555,972 signatures in its first three months).

In the "education and skills" category, the petition about the British Library is the third largest, with 15,077 signatures to date. It was started in response to January's reports of government plans to slash the British Library's budget by 7 per cent: a funding cut that would result in shorter opening hours and charges for using the reading rooms. The petition concludes: "The British Library is a truly world-class institution and one that belongs to all of us. We have a duty of care to support it for the benefit of future generations. Please, Mr Blair, don't cut its budget." The deadline for signatures is June 7.

Aside from the obvious and universal reasons for supporting the British Library (as a copyright library and repository of the nation's literary heritage that should be freely available to all), I have a particular reason for doing so: one that brings the Prime Minister into very unfavourable contrast with his 19th-century predecessor Sir Robert Peel.

Everyone who works on the French Revolution knows that the British Library has an astounding collection of documents, periodicals and prints from the period that rivals, and sometimes surpasses, that of the Biblioth que Nationale. Scholars from all over the world come to the library to pursue their research. The strength of the collection is thanks to the foresight of a clever, cultivated Prime Minister.

Peel visited France in the wake of the Battle of Waterloo with his friend John Wilson Croker. Croker was a wonderful, obsessive historian of the Revolution, going round Paris, interviewing the survivors and buying up all the documentary evidence he could find. Peel encouraged his friend and helped to fund his acquisitions. By 1855, Croker could confidently proclaim himself the best English collector of French Revolutionary materials, if not the best in the world.

Croker's collection was purchased for the British Museum and is now in the British Library. When Peel was a trustee of the museum, his friend wrote to him complaining that his collection (some 50,000 pieces in 4,000 volumes) had not been properly catalogued. "They might as well be sold to a cheesemonger," as kept in inaccessible chaos, Croker reflected bitterly.

He need not have worried. Since the end of the 19th century, his collection has been admirably catalogued and cared for. It has made the British Library the home of French Revolutionary studies that Peel intended it to be. As friend and facilitator of Croker's acquisitions, trustee of the British Museum and user of its library, Peel proved himself a politician with genuine historical interests and due regard for posterity. Which is more than can be said for some people.

Another benefit of the Government's e-petition service is said to be the "opportunity for No 10 to respond to petitions via e-mail". Along with 15,076 other signatories, I am waiting with interest to see what arrives in my inbox after the deadline. The British Library's French Revolution collection is just one example of its wealth of resources that have, until now, been public goods. Shorter opening hours and reading room charges will make them less accessible, especially for those on low incomes and those who live outside London and need to cram their research into long days in the library.

Meanwhile, over in France, the Biblioth que Nationale has scanned a vast proportion of its out-of-copyright books and made them available for free download via its Gallica website. The intention was to help regional universities in France. The result is a gift to scholarship worldwide. The British Library must not fall further behind.

Ruth Scurr is affiliated lecturer in the politics department, Cambridge University, and fellow of and director of studies at Gonville and Caius College.

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