By Suzannah.Brecknell

29 Apr 2013

The British Library’s vast collection is about to get much bigger. Suzannah Brecknell meets its new chief executive, Roly Keating, to find out how the world’s second largest library is reinventing itself for the digital age

Before data storage in the cloud, before the Internet, and even before those room-sized computers with whirring tapes and 1kb of memory, we had libraries: the original data repositories. One of our biggest national data repositories, the British Library (BL), already stores a startling amount of information: well over 150m items, ranged over three physical sites including the vast St Pancras building, which has 14 floors – five of them underground. This makes it the world's second largest library, after the US Library of Congress.

The BL’s artefacts currently take up around 670km of shelving – and the total quantity of information that it holds is about to increase from a startling to a mind-boggling statistic. Earlier this month, the Legal Deposit (Non Print Works) Regulations 2013 came into force – meaning that henceforth the library will collect all publicly published pages on websites with a ‘.uk’ suffix. The first web trawl to gather existing websites will harvest about 1bn pages, and the library expects to collect at least 100 terabytes of data annually – more than twice the amount of data collected in the first 20 years of the Hubble Space Telescope programme.

These new responsibilities have “already quite profoundly changed our identity as an institution,” says chief executive Roly Keating: the library has had to build a storage facility to hold the data, and design systems which allow the new digital artefacts to be accessed easily. The BL is, he says, now “very, very confidently a national digital institution”.

National treasures
Helping to reinvent national institutions is something with which Keating is pretty comfortable. Before joining the British Library last year, he was the director of archive content at the BBC, and in charge of online services such as BBC iPlayer. Before that he had been the corporation’s controller of digital channels, led the launch of BBC 4, and overseen the joint venture which opened up the BBC back catalogue through the suite of UKTV commercial channels. New ventures; digitisation; getting valuable content to wider audiences: all of these were his meat and drink at the Beeb, and are at the heart of the challenges facing the British Library.

“It’s really deeply ingrained in our character [at the BL] to want to maximise, where you can, people’s access to information and content, and to maximise their ability to create new knowledge out of it,” he says. The library is supportive of the Open Access agenda, which aims to make research articles and data more widely available: Keating calls it a “bold move at government level to reinforce that if public funding has gone into research then that research should be as freely accessible as it can be within a sustainable market; and moreover, where possible, that research is open for use and re-use and re-purposing.”

The mention of a sustainable market reflects the fact that, as a copyright library, the BL recognises that publishers’ need to make a profit may constrain open access. Keating describes the publishing industry as “the fountain of new added value; new creativity; new published artefacts, physical and digital, day in and day out.” Without a thriving publishing industry, “the library would be empty”. So the institution, sitting at the intersection of academia and publishing, is “in the position of trying to recommend an optimum position of balance between the huge creative energies that can be unleashed by greatly increased open access, while ensuring that a long term sustainability is still there that will fund content creation into the future.”

There are many artefacts, however, where this balance has already tipped towards open access: ‘out of copyright’ items, on which the legal protection has expired. Turning these items – including some true national treasures such as the Magna Carta – into digital documents which can be shared more widely is a key part of the BL’s contribution to open access.

Sharing the load
The task of transforming these artefacts into a digital record is “huge, it’s laborious, it’s meticulous,” says Keating, “and we just don’t have the public budgets to do that remotely to scale.” So the library has developed a number of partnerships to fund and facilitate the work. For example, Google is digitising around 250,000 out of copyright books which will be available for free on the web, making them easier to search and access, and increasing their research value “truly exponentially”, says Keating. Another partnership, with online publisher Brightsolid, will see 40m news pages from the 18th and 19th centuries digitised over the next decade, while an agreement with the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development (QF) will see half a million photographs, manuscripts and letters relating to Gulf history made available online.

What advice can Keating offer to other public institutions exploring this kind of partnership? “Put in a great deal of time and energy and intellectual effort before you sign anything significant, to truly align interests and acknowledge differences,” he says. This process can be “pretty painful”, but is essential to forming a long-lasting, workable partnership. At the BBC, Keating’s team put in “at least a year’s negotiation” with the joint venture partner before launching UKTV, and were “very tough and explicit about what each party was bringing to the table; where the red lines were; and what was non-negotiable – in the BBC’s case, it was editorial control,” he recalls. “It seemed very, very laborious at the time, but 15 years later that’s an extremely profitable and successful business that is still going strong.”

Just as at the BBC “we talked about how far would you syndicate material before it loses its identity and its badge of editorial authority,” the ‘red lines’ for the BL in building partnerships revolve around “attribution and context”, Keating explains. “You need a whole series of different flavours of protections and limits” for the various types of information and models of partnership. Sometimes it’s clear legal requirements, such as the need to protect copyrighted material, that constrain the BL’s ability to make data available freely; but other times the BL restricts distribution or access in order to protect its own brand and reputation. After all, says Keating, “you may want to let material out there into the digital world fairly freely, but you don’t want it to be manipulated in a way that subverts its authority or brings the BL into disrepute.”

Understanding how your partner will benefit from the arrangement is crucial, he says, “otherwise it’s a contract that’s not worth writing: it will fall apart”. All three of the partnerships mentioned above “feel, so far, very secure,” he adds. “There’s a lot of candour.”

Each partnership has a different business model. In Google’s case, the digitised books will significantly expand its Google Books business and bring increased traffic for advertisers. And the newspaper pages digitised by Brightsolid will initially be placed behind a pay wall, only becoming free to access online after the partnership is completed. “That gives Brightsolid a very secure way to recoup their investment,” explains Keating.

The Qatar partnership is different in that the Foundation does not need to make a profit, but has nonetheless involved a “very carefully negotiated coming together of different cultures, different –kinds of institution, with a shared commitment to enlightenment and understanding and scholarship,” he says. The Gulf documents will be available through a new portal, and the BL has set up a new team to manage this work. This has “enabled us to test-bed new end-to-end models for how you run a 21st century library,” says Keating, “because pretty much in one office you have content selection, digitisation, optical character recognition [the technology which turns handwritten or printed text into digital data], fresh scholarship, cataloguing and web design.” Lessons about how to merge these different disciplines effectively are already being implemented in other parts of the library, he adds.

As well as conscientious negotiations and candour, Keating believes these partnerships need “a continuing testing of the sensitivities, in being clear about what each party won’t do as well as what they will.” Finally, he adds that institutions need “a degree of confidence” in their own assets and capabilities: “We are very confident in the quality of our collections and expertise, and I guess that can help with your negotiating.”

Changing demands
This sort of partnership is likely to become ever more important as public funding is squeezed: the library’s grant funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was cut by 15 per cent in the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review, and its capital budget by half. These cuts followed a period during which it had made £14.2m of savings, including £710,000 in procurement. Between May 2010 and last month, it shed 16 per cent of its staff.

Finding these efficiencies is getting harder, says Keating: “Lynne [Brindley, former chief executive] and the team forced out huge efficiencies in a lot of the end-to-end processes, and we are working to identify where we can push that even further,” he says, “but the truth is that in many areas we believe we’ve pretty much met the edge of it.”

Cuts are particularly hard to make because the demands on the library are growing. For one thing, there’s the challenge of scaling up a digital storage and access system which has so far been built “using resources at the margins over the years”. Then there’s the continued demand for physical services: “We are finding that the journey into digital is not a simple one-way switch out: the physical demands on what the library does in terms of collecting and service provision – collecting physical artefacts and serving real people in real spaces – are, if anything, going up,” says Keating.

“We’re a collection not just of artefacts but of people,” he continues, and “actually, what people expect from the library is knowledge, understanding, human guidance”. The BL has discovered that “digital serves to market that and increase demand, rather than diminish the appetite.” The nature of demand may change, he acknowledges, with more need for “slightly different kinds of collaborative research spaces: areas where instead of it just being the caricature of the solitary scholar in silence at their desk, you will want people poring over screens together, conferring, swapping ideas” – but the need for a physical archive and workspaces will remain.

There is also the pressure caused by the fact that Open Access could, in time, erode revenue streams for the library. For example, there’s the document supply service: a paid-for system that provides access to journals’ content for users across the world. “It’s a classic value-added service,” says Keating. But as Open Access becomes a reality, that service will become increasingly obsolete. Keating does not mourn this change, but says: “It’s a classic dilemma for an institution like this: we want to sustain the genuine public service value-add of providing a service like that. If it can deliver a surplus that’s excellent, but I think we may be close to a tipping point where that surplus turns out to be an artefact of history and we have to look at growing other streams or growing other partnerships or new models.”

Serving industry
One final example of the sort of partnership work – and cross-sector funding – that the library is exploring is the Business and IP Centre, launched in 2006 with a grant from the London Development Agency. The centre provides small businesses and entrepreneurs with “information they could not possibly track down or afford themselves” such as market research, says Keating. It also offers seminars – some of them paid-for – plus face to face advice, and access to a network of entrepreneurs and business people to provide individual support.

The centre offers, he continues, “an unthreatening approach to business: we’ve heard anecdotally that people come here who might not go to something that is more business-focused. They trust the idea of a library to let them, in their own time, find what they need”. A 2010 evaluation report estimated that the 6,700 entrepreneurs who used the centre started 829 businesses between 2007 and ’09, and in that period these businesses’ combined turnover grew by £32m: in a survey, 89 per cent of them said that they would not have achieved this without the centre’s support.

The BL is now creating franchised versions of this centre, in partnership with city libraries in Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield. The franchise has already been piloted in Newcastle, and a wider roll-out was announced in February this year. It’s another multi-agency, cross-sector partnership, with funding from Barclays, the Arts Council and the communities department, on top of initial seed funding from the Intellectual Property Office. The support and funding is there, then, but it will “need a lot of energy to roll that out”, Keating says.

The centres reflect another core “mission” for the library, he says. The BL as it is now was “born in that post-war period where there was a very far-sighted vision to create national institutions of scale that could make a difference,” he explains. “At the time, that was maybe an older-fashioned, big, industrial model, but it’s still quite deep in the DNA of the library to put information at people’s fingertips that can help build new ideas, innovation and economic value.”

Correction: The original text of this interview said that the British Library's document supply service may have to close if it stops turning a profit. The British Library has informed Civil Service World that this is not the case. The British Library remains committed to this service.

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