Vol. 15 No. 15 · 5 August 1993
From Brian Burch
I am not sure whether Professor Sutherland’s discussion of the British Library’s Strategic Objectives (LRB, 22 July) was meant to be anything more than an amusing side-swipe at an over-designed and oddly-presented document; as a serious analysis of the content of the document, it surely does the Library a disservice. Professor Sutherland manages to repeat some old chestnuts (no one ever suggested the mobile shelving was compacting its contents into waste paper – and doesn’t Professor Sutherland want the Library to ensure that the new building’s fittings are adequate for their purpose?); some unjustified accusations (‘the Codex would seem to be BL 2000’s dirty little secret’); and a series of insinuations against the Library for matters which are, regrettably, outside its control, such as the Treasury’s crass desire to sell off the remaining land at St Pancras.
Professor Sutherland makes great play of BL’s Human Resources Review and many of us would join him in wishing that management-speak had been avoided. But when he attacks, as he seems to do, the policy statements, I am frankly baffled: are we to assume that the Library is wrong to wish to ensure that its staff structure is appropriate for its service goals, and that a ‘long-term manpower planning policy’ is a bad thing? Professor Sutherland finds it ‘sinister’ that the Library’s statement of purpose mentions scholarship, research and ‘enterprise’ – the latter is apparently another dirty word. The fact is, however, that the British Library is a major supplier of information to the worlds of industry and commerce; that function was built into its constitution more than twenty years ago and the Library’s ability to continue to supply services to the academic community depends in no small measure on the profitability of its charged-for services to those customers who can and do pay.
As for the alleged reluctance shown in the Strategic Objectives to acknowledge the Library’s continuing obligations to maintain and develop its collections of printed literature, I can only respond by pointing out that the longest chapter in the document is devoted to Collections, and gives explicit recognition of the Library’s archival role. I have heard as much criticism of the plan on the grounds of too much attention to printed literature and the humanities as I have of too much attention to electronic media, charged-for services and the sciences. I suspect that the Library has actually got the balance about right. Professor Sutherland does raise one issue on which many of us would agree, and that is his worry about overcrowding when St Pancras opens. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to open new library buildings know that they tend to attract increased use, and if that is true of a provincial university library it will be many times more true of the national library. But Professor Sutherland seems to imply that somehow this is the fault of the Library’s management, something which I believe to be quite untrue; he also seems to think it is the excuse that will be used to impose charges on entry to St Pancras, something which, if it happens, is again unlikely to be at the wish of the Library’s managers. The fact is, as Professor Sutherland points out, that the first phase of the St Pancras building will rapidly fill up, with both books and readers, and that is why we should all be doing what we can to persuade the Government that the whole of the site should be reserved for further building. The issue of charging is a separate one, and one on which the Library’s user community is itself divided. Some of the most eloquent arguments in favour of charges that I have heard come from some of Professor Sutherland’s academic colleagues on the British Library Advisory Council, and some of the most persuasive arguments against from the librarian members.
There is similar room for argument on the access question. I would certainly be very disappointed if the Library debarred all undergraduates from entry when they needed it; equally, it seems to me inevitable that there has to be some attempt to dissuade the many thousands of them within easy reach of St Pancras from using the British Library simply as a convenient and comfortable place to work. As a university librarian, I am only too well aware of the inability of most university and college libraries to cope with the huge increases in student numbers that we have seen in recent years, but surely the answer has to be to provide more reading and study places on campus, rather than seeking to subvert the use of a national research library to cover our failure to fund universities properly? In any event, the Library’s managers have, on this issue, taken a considerably more liberal line than some of their users.
Professor Sutherland rightly sounds a warning on the familiar tendency to believe that all the problems of libraries will be solved by some magical electronic solution. Librarians share his concern about the difficulties we already face over copyright, the heavy capital costs to produce the communications infrastructure that will be needed to allow home delivery of information, and the myth of the cheap option. In my reading of the British Library document, however, I see a recognition of many of these problems, and a commitment to finding solutions. Moreover, it is, as Professor Sutherland points out, doubtful whether the present government will back the Library in its attempt to secure legal deposit for electronic media – but we cannot both criticise the Library for trying and at the same time blame the Library (as Professor Sutherland seems to want to do) for a collection of such media ‘unworthy’ of one of the world’s great libraries.
Knocking the British Library is a fashionable sport and one in which librarians have often indulged with as much enthusiasm as some of the Library’s London users. The difficulty with this game is that while we are busy poking fun at the Library, or fighting old battles about the merits of the move to St Pancras, the Library is not getting the support and the constructive comment that Brian Lang and his colleagues both need and expect. If St Pancras cannot cope with the demand, that will not be due to a lack of vision on the Library’s part, but rather because all of us failed to make our voices heard during the years when Government was steadily eroding the original scheme. Like Professor Sutherland, I believe the British Library will survive; and no doubt he, too, is anxious that it should; it is disappointing that mockery should take the place of a serious critique of the Library’s important (and somewhat overdue) statement of purpose.
Vol. 15 No. 16 · 19 August 1993
From Anthony Kenny
John Sutherland (LRB, 22 July) presents a sustained attack, written with great wit and passion, on the British Library’s published statement of strategic objectives for the year 2000. The first quarter of his article is devoted to criticism of the BL publication’s presentational style. He dislikes the ‘fusillade of bullet-points’, the business-like phraseology, and the confident tone of the document’s predictions. Every key word, he says, ‘gives off the stench of top-management leadership weekends’. The prose and presentation of the BL document has been found impressive by some of its readers, and irritating by others. Sutherland’s article leaves us in no doubt that those readers who find it irritating find it very irritating indeed.
Sutherland is entitled to his opinion on the document’s style. He should not have allowed his irritation with it to lead him into a personal attack on the chief executive of the Library. He goes so far as to claim, in conclusion, that ‘the strategic objectives of Brian Lang’ are as potentially damaging to the Library as the Nazi bombers of the Second World War. It should be made clear at the outset that the strategic objectives set out in this document are not the objectives of Brian Lang: they are the objectives of the Library’s Board, which under the British Library Act of 1972 has the responsibility for ‘the control and management’ of the Library. The Board is fortunate to have such an enthusiastic, imaginative and energetic chief executive to carry out its policies. Moreover, the statement of objectives was widely circulated, in draft, to individuals and institutions who make use of the Library’s services. Its main thrust was very widely endorsed. Many suggestions were made for detailed improvement: these were taken account of in the final version now published.
The points of substance which are contained in Sutherland’s article are these. 1. The new library at St Pancras will have insufficient seats for readers. 2. The BL excludes, and will continue to exclude, student users. 3. The Board intends to charge readers for access to reading rooms. 4. The Library is investing too much in information technology. 5. The new library will have insufficient space for new acquisitions. 6. The Library is planning to sell off substantial parts of its collections. Three of these objections are swiftly dealt with, since they are sheer calumnies. First, student readers are already admitted to the Library, if they really need to use it; but it is not reasonable to expect the national library to be the library of first resort for those pursuing first degrees. One can imagine how outraged Sutherland would be if the HEFCE refused to fund libraries in London University on the grounds that the undergraduates could always use the BL instead. Second, the Board, despite what Sutherland says, has no intention of introducing charges for access to reading rooms. And it has not sold, and will not sell, any of its unique holdings.
Running through the various points of complaint, there is an underlying theme: the management of the Library is too interested in its non-academic customers, and is neglecting the needs of academics. The academic community is one of the most important constituencies served by the Library. But Sutherland does not seem to appreciate that the British Library is not identical to the British Museum Library of the pre-1972 era. In addition to the Bloomsbury reading rooms, which serve mainly academic readers in the humanities and social sciences, the Library is the heir to several other national institutions, including the old Patent Office Library and the National Science and Information Lending Library. One of the most important departments of the Library is the Document Supply Centre at Boston Spa which lends documents and provides photocopies to remote users from every section of the population.
Sutherland mocks the Library’s description of its function, summed up in the title of the document, as being to serve ‘scholarship, research and innovation’. The description seems to me admirably precise. Pride of place is given to scholarship: that is to say, original work in humane disciplines. The Library, unlike the Higher Education Funding Councils, has not devalued the word ‘scholarship’ to mean merely keeping abreast with the work of others, without any attempt to be creative oneself. Next comes ‘research’: original work in the social and natural sciences. The Library provides for a wide community of scientists and technologists. If their needs are listed second rather than first this is not because the sciences are inferior to the humanities, but because of the special character of humanistic endeavour: most humanists pursue their inquiries not in the field, not in the laboratory, but in the library. Finally, there is ‘innovation’, which is described in the body of the document also as ‘enterprise’. Sutherland regards this as a sinister piece of code: he fears it may mean ‘business’. Of course it does: but the service which the BL renders to business is not something to conceal, but something to celebrate. One might have thought that Sutherland would have been pleased to see the Library putting business in third place after research and scholarship. If he is not it is no doubt because he suspects – correctly – that the Library regards business as a third among equals.
The Library can be proud that businessmen and women are coming to realise more and more how much the Library’s collections, and the expertise of its staff, have to offer in support of enterprise and innovation. It is, of course, very important that the Library’s support of business activity should not weaken its commitment to scholarship and research. But business people might be forgiven for thinking that any bias was in the other direction. After all, most businesses pay for the Library’s services (since they prefer remote document supply), while most academics receive the Library’s services free (since they prefer to read in the reading rooms). In my view, this is entirely right and proper, given the parlous state of academic funding. But it hardly becomes academics like Sutherland and myself to make the current arrangements a matter for complaint.
The Library’s Board shares Sutherland’s disappointment that the new St Pancras library will provide only 1176 readers’ seats – an increase of only 6.5 per cent over the existing places on the Library’s many sites. But it is difficult to make an overwhelming case for funds for extending the reading rooms in the new building when the present average seat occupancy is only 66 per cent. No doubt the attractive new environment to be provided in St Pancras will increase the number of readers. Accordingly, the Library expects seat occupancy to rise by 30 per cent. Sutherland interprets this as meaning that the BL intends to have a 96 per cent average seat occupancy in St Pancras. He rightly points out that this would be a nightmare which would present the reader with ‘ulcerating levels of frustration and delay’. Fortunately, however, the fault here lies not with the Library’s target, but with Sutherland’s arithmetic. The Library’s aim, clearly stated on page 37 of the document, is to achieve 85 per cent seat occupancy. Sutherland must have misread ‘an increase of 30 per cent’ as ‘an increase of thirty percentage points’. The Library also intends to reduce pressure on reading rooms by offering those readers who prefer it the alternative of consulting documents in photocopy, or online, in their own homes. Sutherland mocks the BL’s target of delivering six million documents in the year 2000. But the target is not unreasonable, when current annual delivery of photocopies alone is over three million.
It would be good to know to what extent readers in this country in the year 2000 will prefer to gain their information electronically rather than from books in hard copy. Unfortunately, no one knows: authors do not know, publishers do not know, booksellers do not know, and librarians do not know. The best attempt to make a projection of future demand is the book Information UK2000 published by the BL’s own research department: a study which, among other things, showed how premature are all those reports of the death of the book. We do know, however, that the demand for information in electronic form is on the increase, among scholars and researchers no less than in business. In present circumstances, the Library would be most ill-advised to neglect the investment in IT which Sutherland so dislikes. He himself states confidently that ‘as technology marches on, more and more material will be electronically published.’ But this is when he is pursuing a different complaint – namely, that the BL is insufficiently active in trying to extend legal deposit to non-book material.
The BL document states: ‘The Library will continue to urge the Government to extend legal deposit provisions to cover electronic documents and audio-visual and multi-media materials.’ This statement he calls ‘pathetic’. But if what is needed is a change in the law, what can the Library do other than urge the Government to change the law? What does Sutherland want the BL to do? Search through the patents in SRIS for the most efficient explosive to blow up the Palace of Westminster? Or ceremonially burn the Lindisfarne Gospels in front of the Department of National Heritage to draw attention to the narrow limits of legal deposit?
Finally, there is the question of storage. Here, Sutherland says, the Library has no strategy at all for the year 2000 because all its storage will be used by 1999. Naturally, the BL would welcome, at St Pancras, larger buildings and more space, if some fairy godmother were to provide them. But one cannot help noticing that Sutherland writes throughout as if the British Library Board were an omnipotent body with infinite resources, responsible to nobody and under no constraints.
Sutherland does not like the Library’s strategy. But what strategy does he propose in its stead? The Library must acquire more land for building, build more storage for books, and install more seats for readers. It must cut back on investment in any technology which may reduce the demand for seats and the requirement for space. It must not make any charge at all to readers, nor any increase in charges to other users. It must not expect to get any more money from the Government, and it should not waste its time urging Government to enable it to obtain non-book material free on legal deposit. All this adds up to a policy of more bricks, less straw.
Sutherland does not like the oblique angle at which Brian Lang is photographed in For Scholarship, Research and Innovation. It is hard to know at what angle one could photograph the officer capable of carrying out the policies recommended in his own article.
Chairman, British Library Board
From Keith Flett
As a mere rank-and-file researcher and frequent user of the British Library I do find John Sutherland’s critique a little on the apocalyptic side. While it is certainly very possible that, left to their own devices, the Library’s senior management, and the Tory ministers who stand directly behind them, will wreck the Library, this is by no means certain. In their way stand the underpaid and overworked staff who actually have to fetch the books and who will still have to at St Pancras. Fortunately, they have a well-organised union branch. In their way, too, stand regular readers in so far as they are organised. At the moment the operation of this countervailing power to the men and occasional woman in suits means that the Library is still a pleasant place to study and far quicker than other libraries in getting new books on its catalogue.
In due course, as is often the way with macho managements, it will dawn on the BL that the only way to make St Pancras work is to pay the staff who do the work a lot more money and to keep the Round Reading Room open to ensure adequate seating capacity.
Vol. 15 No. 17 · 9 September 1993
From Etrenne Lymbery
The British Library management might have a slightly less tarnished reputation if it had been fortunate enough over the last few years to have had a spokesman of the calibre of Sir Anthony Kenny, whose letter appears in your issue of 19 August. But admirable as his defence is, it does beg a number of questions. Whether the reader of the British Library’s Plan for the period till 2000 is impressed or irritated by the document, there is no doubt its photographs are both artful and uninformative and its tone that of a public-relations, fundraising, glossy brochure. Nowhere is anyone to be seen carrying out such an old-fashioned act as handling a book. The Plan represents a lost opportunity to guide the British Library out of the appalling situation in which it now finds itself back into its once exalted position as the greatest library in the world.
To take the points, as Sir Anthony has done, one by one, I deal first with the vexed question of seating. Although Professor Sutherland got his sums wrong or misread the Plan, there can be no doubt that what is being discussed is the ‘average seat occupancy’. Most regular readers are unhappily aware of the inconsistency of this seemingly stable phrase. For while ‘66 per cent average seating occupancy’ on a bleak and wet February Saturday morning may mean vistas of blank desks, in July and August, when British and foreign university academics flock to the library, it means that readers are shoulder to shoulder, lucky to have found a space large enough on which to rest their papers and luckier still to find a seat. Whatever will 85 per cent average seat occupancy be like? Suffice to quote the apt letter from Keith Flett which follows Sir Anthony’s: ‘In due course … it will dawn on the BL that the only way to make St Pancras work is to pay the staff who do the work a lot more money and to keep the Round Reading Room open to ensure adequate seating capacity’ – a sentiment wholeheartedly endorsed by the Regular Readers’ Group.
It was strongly hinted that a sudden flood of new readers as a result of lowering the minimum admission age was the source of recent grave problems which beset the Library. Long queues formed at all book delivery counters. Book retrieval was badly delayed and at one point readers were rationed to only six books a day. Admittedly the problems were compounded by stringent and unacceptable staff regrading at the Library’s busiest time of year. But the large influx of new readers – obvious to regular readers, but not officially confirmed – continued.
‘It is difficult to make an overwhelming case for extending the reading rooms in the new building when the present average seat occupancy is only 66 per cent,’ writes Sir Anthony. Would it not have been better before rushing to impress Government with numbers of new readers in the forlorn hope of obtaining extra funds for increasing seat capacity at St Pancras, to consider the wisdom of Mr Flett’s suggestion of keeping the Reading Room, so solving current and future seating problems? Professor Sutherland was quite right to read into the Plan’s Paragraph 11 doubt that the British Library will continue to provide free access to reading rooms. It is stated that there is ‘no intention of introducing charges’, but is the Board likely to resist pressure to do so?
Sir Anthony’s defence of the BL’s grandiose plans for investment in information technology seems to be based on grounds nearly as shaky as those he considers the basis for Professor Sutherland’s attack on it. He concedes that a big question mark hangs over readers’ future use of the new technology but pins his faith merely on the fact that ‘the demand for electronic information is on the increase.’ Surely what is needed is a thorough study (going far beyond Information UK2000) which examines the BL management’s right to alter the British Library’s traditional role as a provider of public reading rooms to that of a depot supplying books in electronic form to universities and public libraries for a fee. It is a policy which completely destroys the basis for scholarly work: that is, the creation of original work from primary sources.
Too many questions have been raised about the wisdom of such blanket faith and total investment in information technology. Robin Alston, Professor of Library, Archive and Information Studies at University College London and a member of the British Library Board, asks what the proven benefits of library computerisation are, believing – as Professor Sutherland points out – that the community of librarians was hoodwinked into computerisation by the microcomputer industry a couple of decades ago. Alarming allegations have also been made concerning the conduct of software companies. One manual warns of the planting of deliberate mistakes to show up illicit copying. What sort of a basis is this for serious study?
Sir Anthony himself voiced serious concern in his 1992 British Library Research Lecture. He pointed out the dangers of the computer becoming a substitute for the human researcher. But more important are his views on what he terms ‘diversion of funding’. He accurately exposes the current dismal trend of human values when he writes:
Because there is pressure on departments in humanistic subjects to appear up to date and efficient, it is much easier to persuade funding bodies to give money for computers and software than to buy manuscripts, rare books, or second and third copies of frequently used library texts. After a few years a department may be left with serious gaps in its library and a load of superannuated computer equipment.
Like Professor Sutherland, the Regular Readers’ Group does not like the British Library’s strategy, but unlike Professor Sutherland the RRG does have a strategy of its own: keep the Bloomsbury reading rooms and associated storage space (held rent-free by the BL) which will not only make good the shortfall in reader facilities but also solve the storage restraints at St Pancras.
Sir Anthony has demonstrated his ability to defend the BL Board’s latest position. Can we hope he will now be able to persuade the Board to a reconsideration of all aspects of current policy and to induce the Government to produce the necessary funds so that St Pancras in tandem with Bloomsbury can once again provide the cultural centre worthy of this country?
Regular Readers’ Group, London SW4
Vol. 15 No. 19 · 7 October 1993
From Vincent Brome
Everyone shares Etrenne Lymbery’s passionate desire (Letters, 9 September) to continue using the beautiful Round Reading Room in Bloomsbury but a significant proportion of readers has long realised that it is impractical and romantic. It would undermine three of the basic aims of the new library: to preserve the priceless collection under ideal conditions, to increase efficient service and keep down running costs. Since rare books cannot be shuffled between venues, her plan would mean keeping open the North Library, the Reading Room and St Pancras, trebling security and administrative staff, a prohibitive multiplication of costs.
The recent complications in seating and delivery are not the result of lowering the age of admission. It has always been possible to waive the age restriction where access can be justified. None the less Lymbery does have a point about the dangers of overcrowding. It is the projected policy of the new library to admit undergraduates backed up by evidence of need. Clearly there is a case for this but the danger of seats being overwhelmed is obvious. One injustice remains. While the BL allows students to use the Library free of charge, university libraries are now charging BL readers (extravagantly in some cases) for reciprocal facilities.
Vol. 17 No. 1 · 12 January 1995
From John Sutherland
Eighteen months ago Sir Anthony Kenny, the Chairman of the British Library Board, wrote a letter to the LRB (Letters, 19 August 1993) in response to a piece I had written on the Library (LRB, 22 July 1993). In the light of his recent pamphlet, ‘The British Library and the St Pancras Building’, and an accompanying article of 1 December in the Evening Standard, ‘Now Read on for a Happy Ending’, I’d like to re-open the question on your pages. The occasion of these two statements is the National Heritage’s releasing the final tranche of money (some £46 million) which will, at a total cost of £496 million, allow the new building to be completed.
The pamphlet is in stark stylistic contrast to the brutally managerial strategic plan for the BL which inspired the original review in this paper. Sir Anthony offers an urbane and lucid model of English prose. In style and content his pamphlet signals a retreat from the high-technological optimism of the previous document, with its Star Trek vision of a 21st-century BL serving the mass of its ‘customers’ through the Internet (Sir Anthony is on record as being sceptical about the value of computers to humane research). The Standard article is a finely-judged piece of populist journalism.
I applaud Sir Anthony’s rhetoric and its implicit guarantee of civilised and skilled discourse from the governors of our national library. He is admirably candid about the troubles which have afflicted the construction and fitting of the new library. He is courteous and carefully attentive to the views of even his most intemperate critics, the Regular Readers Group (who have taken out advertising space at Euston Square Underground Station to attack BL mismanagement, to the probable bemusement of London’s commuters). None the less, the contents of Sir Anthony’s two statements must inspire users of the BL with gloom.
Candid as it is about past and recent cockups, Sir Anthony’s pamphlet is silent on when the new establishment at St Pancras will open. The Standard article informs us: ‘After handover it will take at least a year for the library to prepare the building and move sufficient stock into the basements to provide a service in the major reading areas. If all goes well, the library would hope to open facilities at St Pancras to at least some of its readers by the end of 1997.’ Was ever a great British institution launched with so muffled a fanfare? What this tepid promise with its multiple insurance policies (‘If all goes well … would hope … at least some of its readers’) actually tells us is not when the new library will finally open its doors but that the management does not trust itself, or its contractors, sufficiently to make a firm prediction – 1997, 1998, 1999? Who knows? Who dares tell? There has been a total loss of nerve. Reading the yawning gaps between Sir Anthony’s lines one thing is clear. BL readers will have to put up with an increasingly creaky Bloomsbury service for four more years, ‘at least’. Last summer the main Reading Room was obliged to ration slips to six per day per reader. Will it be operational at all in summer 1997?
Although one has to read twice to work it out, Sir Anthony confirms that the new library’s 340km of storage space will be full on opening if it stands by its original promise to house all its research materials (less newspapers) under one roof. Outhoused storage space will be needed from day one (whenever that day may come). And where will that space be? Boston Spa, in Yorkshire. Woolwich was inconvenient, but at least it was in Greater London. And what reason does Sir Anthony give for storing what, in foreseeable time, will be the bulk of the BL’s book stocks six counties away? It will be cheaper than storing them in London. Surely, by this logic, the cheapest option of all would be to take the damn things down to Waterloo Bridge and toss them in the Thames. I put no faith in Sir Anthony’s prediction that, by computer monitoring, BL will be able to keep most-used volumes in St Pancras and less-used volumes in Northern England. Given future projections for congestion on the M1 and its feeder roads, readers can look forward to week-long delivery delays.
As with books, so with seats. The St Pancras BL will have an extra 92 seats above the present provision of 1100. Currently the average, year round, occupancy of the reading rooms is 66 per cent (calculated by sweeps at mid-day). The new premises will generate new readers and the BL looks forward to an ‘expected seat occupancy’ of 85 per cent, calculated on total daily use through the year. Given annual fluctuations – more particularly the summer flow and the winter ebb – the 85 per cent figure guarantees a regularly dysfunctional service. What it means, to be blunt, is that in periods of heaviest use readers will be turned away or rationed in their use of desks (as they are currently rationed in their use of computer terminals). Alternatively, entrance pricing will have to be introduced – not to raise revenue but to deter casual readers.
The original plan was for 3440 seats. Sir Anthony reports that this number is no longer valid since when it was projected ‘Universities were expanding quickly, especially in America, and the expected increases in student demand for the Library’s facilities have not materialised.’ One body of students will dispute this assertion – London’s undergraduates. These would-be users will, necessarily, continue to be turned away in perpetuity. The argument given by Sir Anthony and others in this paper is that it is not the national library’s responsibility, but that of the home university, to provide reading material for its students. Other national libraries think differently. The Library of Congress, for instance, which proclaims at the head of its advice to readers: ‘The Library’s reading rooms are open to anyone over high school age.’ That, to its it shame, is a proclamation the British Library will never be able to make.
The BL has done London’s universities a grievous disservice by scaling down its seating from 3440 to 1192. Undergraduates at Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Dublin and Aberystwyth have access to a copyright library. London’s undergraduates, although they will be free to admire the Library’s controversial architecture, wander through the exhibition halls, and buy a postcard at the gift shop, will be forbidden access to the Library’s books. Sir Anthony is based at Oxford. If his students reported one day to the Bodleian and discovered 1. that only postgraduates might use the books, and 2. that many of those books would henceforth be stored in Yorkshire, he would not, I imagine, write a congratulatory piece in the Oxford Mail.
Now read on for a happy ending – if you can wait five years, if you are not an undergraduate, if you are not foolish enough to turn up at mid-day in July, and if you are prepared to wait for your book to travel the length of England.
‘The British Library and the St Pancras Building’ is available free on application to the Library’s press office at 96 Euston Road, London NW1 (071 323 7111).
University College London
Vol. 17 No. 2 · 26 January 1995
From Chris Harman
John Sutherland is quite right to point to the danger that access to the British Library will be restricted once the Euston Road building is eventually opened (Letters, 12 January). But it is not only at the British Library that accessibility – and therefore independent scholarship – is increasingly under threat. University libraries are more and more following policies that deprive those without some sort of sponsorship from pursuing research.
I had a research permit for about fifteen years to the British Library of Political and Economic Science, which was founded by Sidney Webb a century ago ‘as a great laboratory of social research’ and which is run by the LSE. The permit was issued under the then regulations of the Library that provided for free access to ‘bone fide researchers’ not working for ‘profit-making institutions’. This helped to provide me with material to produce several books and a large number of journal articles, so that some twenty-five of my works are to be found in the catalogue of the Library (two of them as ‘recommended texts’). Much of this material is not to be found at the British Library or any other in this country. Then last summer I received a letter from the Library telling me I could only use it in future on payment of £7.50 a day, £20 a week or £200 a year. A similar letter presumably went to many other permit-holders.
These sums may not seem large to the head of the LSE, John Ashworth, or to Lord Dainton, the chair of the Library Panel, but they are an awful lot for any researchers not working for an academic institution or in receipt of a substantial commission from a publisher. They effectively rule out access to the Library for anyone who chooses to keep themselves while writing books or articles by living on part-time work or enduring a spell on the dole: the £20 a week would eat up half someone’s dole money. The Library has, in fact, made a ruling that, had it been in effect earlier, would have prevented many of the books on its shelves ever being written.
When I made some of these points to the sub-librarian in charge of ‘management and external services’, the justification was twofold. First that ‘we are by no means the first university library to introduce charges.’ Second, that ‘today’s market economy is quite incompatible with your suggestion we should provide each of the authors of our material with free access to the wider collections.’
Vol. 17 No. 3 · 9 February 1995
From Anthony Kenny
In the LRB of 12 January John Sutherland returns to the attack on the British Library which he began in your pages on 22 July 1993. His new broadside takes the form of a letter reviewing a pamphlet which I recently published about the past and future of the building under construction at St Pancras. There is much in his letter for which I am thankful. He makes several kind remarks about the style of my pamphlet, which he prefers to that of the BL’s strategic plan. May I return the compliment and say that I regard his civility to myself as a great improvement on the intemperate hostility to the Library’s Chief Executive which he showed in his previous article. I am also grateful to such a regular Bloomsbury reader for dissociating himself from the self-styled Regular Readers’ Group. He realises that the tragedy is not that the Library is moving to St Pancras, but that we have all, readers, staff, management and Board, been kept waiting so long before being able to make the move. And he is right to say that during the waiting period readers have to put up with a service at Bloomsbury which is less than they deserve.
However, Sutherland is a hard man to please. He found the predictions in the Library’s strategic plan too confident; he finds the predictions in my pamphlet too cautious. He says first that I am ‘silent on when the new establishment will open’; then he notices that I do in fact say that it will open before the end of 1997. But he complains that my announcement is a ‘muffled fanfare’. But since the date when the building will be handed over by the Department of National Heritage, and the success of the remedial work commissioned by the Department, are both matters outside the Library’s control, it would surely be rash for the Library to blow its trumpet too stridently at this point.
Sutherland’s substantial complaints are that the new library will have insufficient shelves and insufficient seats. He is right that the shelves in St Pancras will be insufficient to hold the entire reference collection of the BL and that low-use books will be stored at Boston Spa. This policy is repugnant to many people, because they imagine that a low-use book is a book which is consulted only once a year or so. But this is far from the truth. The BL’s research collections contain some twelve million volumes. Each year about five million items are consulted in the London reading rooms. Hence the average book is consulted less than once every two years. But it is well known that not all books have an equal chance of being consulted: some are consulted very frequently, which means that many are consulted very much less than the average. A low-use book, accordingly, is one which is consulted only once in many years. In my pamphlet I queried whether it made sense for the taxpayer to pay to keep such books permanently in London when to store them in Boston Spa costs only half as much. Sutherland comments: ‘By this logic, the cheapest option of all would be to take the damn things down to Waterloo Bridge and toss them in the Thames.’ Here his rhetoric has blown his own logic completely out of doors. If I travel from Oxford to London by the bus because it is only half as expensive as the train, does that mean that the most logical course would be for me to stay put in Oxford?
There is more substance to Sutherland’s fear that the new building will have insufficient reader seats to meet demand. The increase in the seating will be adequate, as demonstrated in my pamphlet, to provide for the present readership, with something to spare. But Sutherland and I both believe that the attractive environment of St Pancras will attract new readers. Though the Library is undertaking research to ascertain the best estimate of this increased readership, it will be difficult to make any certain prediction of its size. Among other factors, there appears to be a trend for readers nowadays to prefer remote document delivery to reading room visits. But one reason why the BL would not wish the Government to sell the land to the north of the new building is precisely in order to permit the provision of further reader accommodation if it should be justified by demand.
Sutherland has a special reason for wanting extra seats in the new building: he wants it to be a library of first resort for undergraduates. He appears to believe that they are currently excluded; but in fact they are already admitted to the Library, like everyone else, on condition that they can prove a real need to consult its collections. Noting that I am a member of Oxford University, Sutherland suggests that I would be quite horrified if one day I were to be told that only postgraduates might use the books in the Bodleian, and that many of the books in that library were to be stored on a distant site. This suggestion reveals some misapprehensions about Bodley. The ideal long pursued in Oxford is that undergraduate needs should be met primarily by college libraries, and research needs by the main university library; and it has been proposed more than once by reformers that such a policy should be formalised by reserving Bodleian access for postgraduates. For years, a substantial portion of Bodley’s holdings has been stored out of town, and the average time between ordering a book in Oxford and receiving it from Nuneham Courtenay is roughly the same as that between ordering a book in Bloomsbury and receiving it from Boston Spa.
But even if Sutherland’s comparison had been accurate, it would still have been absurd. The Bodleian Library is the library of Oxford University; the British Library is not the library of the University of London but the national library of the United Kingdom. Sutherland seems in effect to wish to turn the BL into a library of first resort for his students. But if the BL were ever to have to function as London University’s library, it would be a bad day for London University and a bad day for the nation. Sutherland praises the Library of Congress for opening its reading rooms to all over high-school age; but he cannot really believe that the Library of Congress serves as a university library for Georgetown and the half-dozen other universities in Washington DC.
If Professor Sutherland’s real allegation is that the libraries of his university are inadequately funded, then he should address his complaints to those responsible for funding them, and not to the Board of the British Library. If your readers wish to make their own judgment on the matters at issue between Professor Sutherland and myself, may I urge them to follow his invitation to apply to the BL Press Office at 96 Euston Road, London NW1 for a free copy of my pamphlet The British Library and the St Pancras Building.
Chairman, British Library Board
Vol. 17 No. 4 · 23 February 1995
From Keith Flett
As a regular, rank and file, reader in the British Library I have of course already studied Anthony Kenny’s pamphlet The British Library and the St Pancras Building. I found it full of the kind of reassuringly vague phrases which I am more familiar with in another of my capacities, as a telecommunications manager. In the meantime, although I don’t suppose this matter will much distress Anthony Kenny, industrial relations troubles at the St Pancras site continue. Union activists there have suggested that it pays among the lowest wages on major London building sites. Perhaps here lies the vital clue as to why the thing has taken so long to be built? Or perhaps the Library insists on the builders being treated in the same way as it has become accustomed to treating its own staff?
Vol. 19 No. 12 · 19 June 1997
From John Sutherland
In a letter of 19 August 1993, in reply to a comment in a piece by me, the Chairman of the British Library Board, Sir Anthony Kenny, stated that it was a ‘sheer calumny’ to suggest that the Library was considering making readers pay for the privilege of reading: ‘the Board … has no intention of introducing charges for access to reading rooms.’ I felt at the time that ‘calumny’ was a harsh term. It rings peculiarly hollow now, as users of the BL are being served with a questionnaire asking whether they feel a short-term ticket (from £10 to £60) or an annual ticket (£50 to £700) strikes them as ‘reasonable’, ‘expensive’ or ‘so expensive that they would no longer visit the Library’. Of course the inquiry is not intended to elicit information (the BL must know exactly what it will charge) but to alert ‘customers’ (as they must now regard themselves) to the fact that there will be an entrance fee when the St Pancras site opens for business in 1998. Personally I don’t see why salaried users of the Library should not pay, if the BL is on its uppers and if some cost-barrier is needed to keep users from overwhelming the inadequate 1176 seats that will be provided at St Pancras. I do hope, however, that the British Library Board will remember that the Library is most intensively used by scholars in the poorest phase of their careers – when they are post-graduate students and junior lecturers – and that some preferential charge will be devised for such users. Even if it means a levy on other, better-heeled readers.
University College London