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Purpose, Potter and potential at the British Library


Purpose, Potter and potential at the British Library

YOU’RE not going to cover everything when you talk about the British Library. Its remit is huge, its collection is huge and the demands on its resources are equally huge. Speaking to Information Professional, Roly Keating, who celebrated five years as CEO in September, sums it up like this: “There’s no one in these islands to whom we don’t owe something. The collection tries to be the most comprehensive record of everything that’s published and said about the nation, recording its beliefs, feelings, ideas and stories and we want to try and provide as much value back as we possibly can.”


Clearly identifying the purpose of the BL was one of Roly’s early ambitions: “I guess the single biggest change has been the ­development and roll-out of Living Knowledge. It’s our refreshed statement of vision and ­answers the question ‘what is a national ­library for, who is it for?’”

This has helped keep the BL focused and positive during difficult times: “For any organisation dependent on public funding there are hard choices to be made” Roly said, “and BL is no different but having a clear statement of purpose and strategy can help.”

However he said: “Some of the challenges – becoming an open and creative and learning and innovating organisation – aren’t really negotiable” and he believes the strategy and purpose “has to trigger the resourcefulness and inventiveness to find the solutions. We’ve absorbed some pretty big absolute cuts over the last seven or eight years but we owe it to our users to keep looking for the ambitious solutions.”

Custody battle

The six pillars of the strategy are custodianship, research, business, culture, learning and the BL’s international role. Each of these areas is in a state of flux but none more so than custodianship: “The single biggest revolution under my watch was the legal shift to becoming the legal deposit ­library for digital content. That has irrevocably changed what it means to be a ­national library or a collecting institution.”

The product of more than a decade and a half of advocacy and negotiation, the BL’s new role as the nation’s Internet memory is timely because new laws could disrupt the existing memory of the web. The public Internet will be subject to new data protection laws from which the BL hopes to be exempt.

Of the Data Protection Bill, now going through Parliament, Roly says: “We’re very optimistic that the important principle, the exemption associated with archiving in the public interest, will be enacted in that act of parliament. Absolutely those exemptions are vital for the integrity of the archive to be protected, all be it that in other parts of web publication there may be other principles applied.” It means that the BL and other National Libraries with similar powers, rather than the likes of Google, may eventually become the key custodians of the digital memory.


There are challenges on every front. One is that gaps might be left in the nation’s memory: “In any huge act of collecting it can’t literally be comprehensive. Whether it’s the fringes of social media or content deep below the radar, of course there are going to be gaps. Particularly in the early stages of any medium, the shift of the digital age will have gaps but it will also be a huge, huge discoverable resource in its own right.”


Another is that the very nature of web archiving means that it will inevitably capture material that many people would regard as offensive or extreme. Roly says: “If you look in reading rooms now, what people find valuable from 100 years ago is exactly the material at the fringes of publication that tells you about the spirit of the age, so the power of the unedited record is absolutely vital and that’s as true in the digital age as it has been in the print age.”

He said: “We now do preserve a snapshot of that in perpetuity and it’s too early to say what the long term benefits and consequence of that may be, but yes that is a shift and yes it does mean that somewhere in the digital landscape, governed by law, you do now have a protected archive that will not change and that has to be of deep lasting value.”


“One of the challenges for the next five years will be to get to grips with what big data analytics really can do in terms of making this new generation of collections discoverable. We’re all now swimming in an age of big data, having to re-compute our brains to cope with the sheer volume of digital material. A lot of the work we do here with our digital research team is to create new tools that allow you to interrogate really vast data sets which no single human being or scholar could ever hope to get their head around.”

This task will be addressed in part by the Alan Turning Institute (ATI) – the National Institute for big data research and algorithmic science – now based at the British Library’s site at St Pancras. Roly says: “I think that the ATI moving into the BL was a vote of confidence in the importance of bringing together cutting edge computer science with the great growing digital resources that libraries hold. I think over this next decade we’re going to see huge advances in new kinds of experimental tools both in terms of unlocking what is in archives and asking new questions of them.”

Digital democratisation

The BL continues to collect the unique archives of remarkable individuals, whether they’re writers, politicians or musicians. However the bar of remarkableness can be lowered in the age of mass digital storage. “Don’t forget” Roly says, “under our UK web archiving activity, we proudly collect everything freely published which includes any blog on the web, so already our day-to-day collecting is hugely enriched by the generosity of modern publishing tools. If you keep a blog and you publish it freely then that will be preserved in the British Library forever. That free act of publication does now become part of the legal deposit record. The collections that are growing organically day by day, year by year, are even more widespread and democratic than the collections that our predecessors brought in.”

The digital age has also added new dimensions to the higher profile personal archives: “Many of those archives are half and half, half physical and half digital, so with Hanif Kureishi’s novels, some of the early ones are reams of type written paper, the later ones are Microsoft word files. They’re romantic in different ways, you don’t get the biro scribbling out, but scholars of the future will be able to compare exactly the thought processes, second by second, as he deleted and changed and amended things – so we’re learning how to protect and preserve that kind of digital material. Increasingly that will become part of our educational and cultural offer as well, so it does mean that with our big digital learning service Discovering Literature, we are now able to publish for students and users of that website, not just Shakespeare folios and Jane Austen manuscripts but also right up to date archival material for contemporary writers because of that continued collecting, some of it may be in digital form.”

Fading memory

New responsibilities mean new challenges but the BL can’t take its eye off its old collections. The Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound exhibition showcases its role as the national sound archive and celebrates the BL’s Save Our Sounds project. Roly says: “We are the national sound archive so it’s understood to be part of the BL role to collect and preserve recorded sound – the only difference is that it doesn’t have the technical provision or protection of legal deposit collecting. The SOS mission has been the penny dropping that this amazing collection is at risk. A lot of the formats are very vulnerable, a lot of the technology to play them on is literally falling apart in front of our eyes and if we don’t take action now to digitise the rarest and most precious of it, then it will be lost forever.”

Before this, Roly says the BL’s national newspaper collection was the most urgent challenge in terms of being physically at risk: “I think these things do come in generational waves and as I arrived it was becoming pretty apparent that sound collections were the next very large scale preservation challenge.”

New models

The initial phase of the SOS project is being funded by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £9.5m, with a total fundraising target of £40m. Projects like this require good relationships and communications. “It’s absolutely about making an argument, making a case, and there’s always a matter of being true to your purpose, finding the alignment of interests that will unlock the funds to make something big happen. The Knowledge Quarter, here in London, was not a top down thing. It was forged by a group of us on the ground, all engaged in knowledge and information and culture or research but we weren’t really talking to each other. KQ is about changing behaviours, giving people permission to work together in a new way. It’s getting on to three years old and up to 89 members now, it’s a very nice blend of big beasts, British Museum and Google, to much smaller organisations, start-ups, charities, primary schools.” (CILIP is a member.)

The breakdown of divisions between institutions is also happening in the profession. Roly says the proliferation of data and analytics “is definitely a new professional challenge. That’s where it’s not just a recruitment thing, it’s a partnership thing, working in new ways both collaboratively across the sector, working with universities and specialist institutions like the ATI to fast track innovation, that’s a whole new kind of professional challenge.”

Public libraries

While the data revolution continues, the communication of the ideas and knowledge remains open to innovation. Since his inclusion on William Sieghart’s e-lending review panel in 2012, Roly has become more involved in the public libraries sector. This has included the opening of 10 Business and IP Centres around the UK and, more recently, the Living Knowledge Network “a group of the most dynamic public library services around the UK… again this wasn’t under instruction from anybody, it was a mutual act of trust.”

The potential of the LKN is huge and will be tested in the BL’s massive Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition. As well as the major exhibition in London there are 20 different versions of that exhibition with LKN partners.

Roly says: “For any innovation it’s a mix of analysis and research and some gut feeling judgement. It’s an experiment in how you try to create a cultural moment that floods right across a network. If we get it right we’ll reach audiences in ways that just wouldn’t be possible with any one of the members acting by themselves. In the case of LKN, we have assessed the combined numbers of people that are potential users of the partner library networks, it runs into more than 10 million people. That’s a powerful amplifier for any kind of investment in a public service. I wouldn’t want to over claim because it’s an experimental partnership, but what it’s definitely doing is growing mutual professional learning. It’s creating new kinds of skills development just because people are talking to each other who wouldn’t otherwise have spoken to each other.”

But he says there’s another, more fundamental message: “It’s a reminder for the sector that the collections we hold include some of the most potent and popular brands and ideas in the world. It’s not at all a surprise that J.K. Rowling’s first ever large-scale exhibition is through the library sector. Behind all the digital platforms and Hollywood films, the power of Harry Potter is about the power of a single book and a child completely lost in an act of reading, and that is deeply rooted in what it means to be a library.”

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Published: 8 November 2017


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