The British Library goes digital

11 April 2013

If you go down to the British Library today, you’re sure of a big surprise. Because as of last weekend, it’s archiving not just every book published in the UK (its traditional role), not just every e-book published in the UK – it’s archiving every website based in the UK. In terms of what we’ve conventionally understood by the word ‘library’, it’s as big a change as there has ever been.

‘Capturing the nation’s digital memory’ – that’s the phrase the British Library themselves are using about the venture. Your first response might be: ‘the internet archives itself, doesn’t it? It’s called Google.’ But as Lucie Burgess, the library’s Head of Content Strategy, tells me: ‘There are lots of websites that cease to exist – politicians’ ones, for instance. Straight after a general election candidates’ sites get taken down, or, if they’ve been elected, get turned into their site as an MP.’ Plenty of politicians would no doubt be happy for those sites to disappear; no awkward promises to be reminded of. As the years go by, and more and more content vanishes into web’s black hole, the library’s archive will become ever more valuable.


Initially it’s going to be just an annual snapshot, a once-yearly record of the websites ending ‘.uk’ (or ‘.com’, ‘.org’, etc sites that have UK-generated content). They number 4.8 million at the moment, with over a billion web pages between them, though who knows what that total will reach in the future. And you’ll have to visit the British Library itself to access the content. But Burgess says that the technology may change. The capability is there even now to capture the web daily; in the future it might be possible hourly. The servers doing the work look sleek and modern, rather like a row of designer fridge-freezers, though I can’t help thinking of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

‘The nation’s cultural and intellectual output is increasingly appearing in digital form,’ says Burgess. ‘We’ve got to reflect that in the way we operate. The historians of the future are going to find this an invaluable resource.’ It so happens that we’re talking an hour after the announcement of Baroness Thatcher’s death. For someone in 2063 to research the public’s response to that event without having access to Twitter would be unimaginable. (The library, according to Burgess, hasn’t always taken this forward-thinking approach. ‘One of the reasons newspapers were stored up at Colindale in the 1920s was that back then they weren’t thought important.’) It isn’t only at the British Library that attitudes are changing: Christopher Platt of the New York Public Library wrote in the recent issue of Spectator Life about the way his institution is responding to the digital age.

Part of me feels a little uneasy about the new system. In the old days the finest of everything – scientific knowledge, philosophy, poetry, you name it – went into books, which the British Library stored. Now there’s no filter, no sense of quality control. Anyone can publish any statement about any subject and the library will preserve it. A teenager in her bedroom in Swindon blogging about the latest X-Factor contestant gets as many bytes as the Poet Laureate. It’s the equivalent of a thousand billion cave paintings, with historians of the future given a search engine (however sophisticated its algorithms) and told: ‘Pick the cultural significance out of that lot.’

But then who was the filter in the past? A few dozen people in central London, essentially. Publishers (be they of books or newspapers) decided what picture you and I would get of their time. OK, they found Shakespeare for us, and Dryden and Darwin and Shaw. But who knows what they missed? If publishers are such good judges of what people will like, how come 12 out of 13 of them rejected Harry Potter? It’s not even as though the British Library has limited itself to books up till now: as well as those unimportant newspapers at Colindale, their collections already include journals, maps, photographs and sound recordings. That they’re widening their scope to include e-books and the internet is nothing more than a recognition that those filters of the past have gone. We’re all publishers now. Anyone can put their thoughts on a blog, their book on Kindle. Very few people are Shakespeares or JK Rowlings – but those that are will definitely be found. And now, thanks to the British Library, they’ll never be lost.

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  • ClausewitzTheMunificent

    Libraries should and ought to preserve physical copies of books and the BL decision is a step away from that and towards getting rid of the originals – woe betide this should happen! Libraries are meant as repositories and stores of knowledge as much as they are designed to be accessible, and this should be their foremost preoccupation. Moreover, while books last for centuries, operating systems last perhaps a decade and file formats not much longer, while so called “social-networks” (in reality nothing of the sort) tend to die out within a few years: in a few years time I may be celebrating the end of Facebook and Twitter, these godawful sinkholes of human activity. Thus I think it more than feasible that a historian in 2063 would be able to do just fine without access to someone’s inane 140 character comment on Twitter. What a terrible decision: thank goodness that bureaucratic inertia is likely to mean the survival of Italian libraries far into the future. Finally, the a filtering system has never before been as crucial as today, when anyone can call themselves a writer and produce garbage which under-literate people will then read. Publishers may not do a great job, but that’s not the point: they are there so to speak to restrict access to a wider audience to a select few books. Simply put, the time and energy of one’s lifetime are not infinite, and a system of selection is most likely the most efficient solution to what amounts to a rather complex optimisation problem. This was adressed in the article, but perhaps not stressed as much as it should have been: but the quality of future historiography will tell :)

  • thanksdellingpole

    They probably rejected the HP because of all the Political Correctness, it’s almost like a BBC production!

    As for the BL, I hope they make it accessible via online because their face-to-face customer service makes you violent!

    • ClausewitzTheMunificent

      Very true about HP, written by a Labourite. Thinking about it the whole plot is just one poor PC stereotype after another, though to be fair, it is rather well written for a children’s book.

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