How not to do it

John Sutherland

  • The British Library: For Scholarship, Research and Innovation: Strategic Objectives for the Year 2000
    British Library, 39 pp, £5.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 7123 0321 9
  • The Library of the British Museum: Retrospective Essays on the Department of Printed Books edited by P.R. Harris
    British Library, 305 pp, £35.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 7123 0242 5

The British Library is undergoing the most drastic transformation in its 162-year history. The Board, via its Press and Public Relations Unit, offers us a preview of the library of the future – BL 2000. The presentational style is that of the glossy super-confident company report and the abbreviated ‘aims and goals’ phraseology beloved of macho commerce. Successful business operatives (‘winners’) waste no time on words. The imperative forms of ‘will’ and ‘shall’ feature prominently (‘I will drown and nobody shall save me,’ as the unlucky Frenchman is supposed to have shouted to impassive British spectators on the shore). By the year 2000, we are told, among 11 other willed predictions, ‘the British Library will achieve maximum economy, efficiency, and value for money’ and nothing shall stand in its way.

In passing, one should note the distressing standard of English lurking under the fusillade of bullet-points. Every key word gives off the stench of top-management leadership weekends and stale memorandum-speak. For instance, Paragraph 59:

We have set in train a Human Resource Review with the object of matching the Library’s overall staff profile to primary service goals and developing a long-term manpower planning policy. We are anxious inter alia to develop a graduate direct entry scheme, to recruit staff at middle management levels from outside the Library and to explore other mechanisms, such as staff exchanges, which increase the interchange of skills and experience with the wider library and information community. The recommendations of the Human Resource Review will be implemented during the period.

In the BL 2000 lexicon ‘knowledge base’ replaces ‘library’; ‘information community’ replaces ‘scholars’; ‘Human Resource’ (oddly capitalised) replaces ‘personnel’. This is the familiar gobbledygook by which bureaucrats through the ages have puffed up their little initiatives (what does Paragraph 59 mean, other than ‘we may be a bit more flexible about who we take, but don’t bet on it’?). Elsewhere, the language has a more sinister tinge. In the ‘Statement of Purpose’ it is declared that ‘our function is to serve scholarship, research and enterprise.’ What would Panizzi have made of ‘enterprise’? Marx would probably have recognised it as a mystificatory term denoting ‘free market values’. Adam Smithism or ‘capitalism’. The new BL, this is to say, will serve Scholarship and Mammon. Another statement of purpose makes the usage clearer: ‘we [will] exploit our collections in enterprising ways to raise support for our activities.’ Enterprising does not mean, as it would in conversation, ‘ingenious’, but ‘revenue-generating’. ‘Support’ means ‘cash-subsidy’. In other words, ‘we’ll flog everything that is not nailed down.’

The words in this document are less creative than the 11 full-plate pictures. These have been skilfully thematised by the designer Frances Salisbury (sub-contracted, presumably). The photography (by Phil Starling) is moody, artfully under-exposed and obliquely-angled. Cumulatively the illustrations suggest a cathedral quiet and nobility of mission, combined with beyond-the-cutting-edge technology: less 2000 than 2001. The first plate shows ‘Analyst/Programmer Peter James at work on the British Library Online Catalogue’. Peter James’s head is cropped to give a central prominence to his hands on the keyboard and the all-important screen which displays ‘Shakespeare, William: Hamlet’ and promises 141 Entries – a VDU cornucopia. Peter James is tieless and youthful. In the background, other screens glow dimly. The second plate portrays ‘Library Chief Executive Brian Lang in the entrance hall of the new building at St Pancras’. The lavishly-cravatted LCE is tilted at 45 degrees in the kind of ‘man in a force-ten gale’ snap which Brownie Box instruction leaflets used to feature in their ‘how not to do it’ section. It is, of course, an artful error, prophesying new directions. This is a man unafraid to boldly go where knowledge-base managers have never gone before. The most bizarre photograph displays Mike Curston, who ‘is responsible for the Document Supply Centre’s CD-ROM development’, regarding a disc which he has apparently tossed in the air with a solemnity reminiscent of Millais’ Bubbles.

What is significant about the illustrations is what they do not illustrate. We are shown numerous Human Resources gazing at monitor screens; ‘Beauty Shots’ of the new St Pancras and Boston Spa sites; a group of ‘customers’ standing to attention in front of an overhead projection of the ‘National Bibliographic Service Organisational Chart’; ‘Boston Spa Director General David Russon viewing new digital storage and transmission equipment’ (‘Director General’! – Gogol lives); the conveyor channels of the new ‘Mechanical Book Handling System’ (tactfully, the Electric Dutch shelves which ran amok compacting their contents into waste paper are not displayed); and ‘Liz Grossett and Steve Cove considering some computer-generated figures on the Library’s performance’. Unfortunately, there is so much printout that we can’t see Liz and Steve: it could be Lord Lucan and Madonna having it off behind that mountain of electronic excreta. Nowhere in these illustrations do we see a book, or a human being reading a book. The Codex would seem to be BL 2000’s dirty little secret. Presumably there will be a grimy oubliette in Euston Road for the optical investigation of printed materials – something akin to the desk of shame in the North Library where degenerates and potential self-abusers are condemned to sit.

We have seen the BL’s future – will it work? No, it won’t. Or, more precisely, if anyone thinks that using BL 2000 will involve no more than walking half a mile north and having access to some fiendishly useful gadgets, he/she is sadly mistaken. The BL, as Panizzi redesigned it and we have known it, is doomed. To see why one has to penetrate the high gloss wrapping, and look at the handful of carefully downplayed facts contained in this document. Paragraph 10, for instance: ‘The Library’s new building at St Pancras will provide 1176 seats – an increase of 6.5 per cent over existing places. The present average seat occupancy stands at 66 per cent overall. With the opening of the new Library and the introduction of improved services, any significant relaxation of existing criteria is likely to result in overcrowding. Admission to the reading rooms will therefore be based on need to use the collection.’ This is followed up in Paragraph 12 with ‘Our target for average seat occupancy represents a 30 per cent increase on current levels.’

Consider those figures. The BL intends to have a 96 per cent ‘average seat occupancy’. There is not a theatre or cinema in the West End that can manage Monday-to-Saturday figures through the year of better than 60 per cent. It will be the opening night of Jurassic Park every day at BL 2000. There will be ticket touts in the Euston Road offering desperate American scholars seats for arm-and-a-leg prices. Young women with thesis deadlines will be prostituting their bodies for a carrel. If you want a foretaste of what the BL of the future will be like, imagine the bank of six British Library Online Catalogue terminals in the Round Reading Room: any time you want to use them, they will be occupied by other readers, racing to cram their search into the allotted seven minutes. At peak times there will be grumpy queues formed behind each user. This is what anything over 70 per cent ‘average occupancy’ means: queues. Of course, the introduction of the BLOC terminals can be read statistically as a huge success. But the same logic would say that the safety provisions of the Titanic were admirably efficient because there was a 100 per cent take-up on life-boat places. Perhaps if the waiting masses in the Round Reading Room broke into an impromptu chorus of ‘Abide with Me’ it might make the point to the BL managers.

What BL 2000 promises the average reading-room user is ulcerating levels of frustration and delay – at a cost (still rising) to the taxpayer of £450 million, a figure which will not make frustration easier to stomach. And the definition ‘average reading-room user’ will still exclude those who have most reason to use the Library. When the document talks about not relaxing criteria and ‘admission based on need to use the collection’ this should be decoded as ‘we shall continue to exclude students.’ In the past decade the undergraduate population of the capital has risen by several orders of magnitude, and now stands at something over thirty thousand. The book allowance in the LEA grant has correspondingly shrunk to about £23 a year. And yet we shall have a situation where finalists revising for their exams, or writing a dissertation on ‘Shakespeare, William: Hamlet’ are barred from the BL to make room for the geriatric zany with a bee in his bonnet about the secret chamber of the Great Pyramid.

Even by barring access to that part of the tax-paying, voting population that most needs it, BL 2000 is clearly going to have problems with the daily bums-to-seats ratio. One solution is hinted at in Paragraph 11: ‘We shall for the present continue to provide free access to the reading rooms. This policy will be kept under review.’ For which read: ‘charges are on the way, and we’ll keep raising them until you stay away in large enough numbers to let us do our job.’ A less brutal but much less certain solution is ‘Remote Document Supply’. In seven years’ time, this document suggests, there will have been a major shift to providing off-site service in two forms: Xerox or photo-reproduced material (from Boston Spa, mainly) and digitised images transmitted via a users’ electronic network. By 2000, it is promised, ‘we expect to deliver six million items annually to users in their homes, their workplaces or their libraries’ – 25 per cent of them ‘immediately’. In this Arthur C. Clarke scenario, the reader will sit in his/her study in John O’ Groats, log onto the BLOC, order by keyboard a selection of the 141 items on ‘Shakespeare, William: Hamlet’, and hey-presto have them delivered at a super-fast baud rate to his/her PC.

That is the Science Fiction version. The Real World implementation of RDS will be much trickier. If, for instance, Peter James had been shown calling up ‘Golding, [Sir] William: Lord of the Flies’ on his screen it would have highlighted one particularly intractable difficulty. Copyright holders are not going to let BL 2000 digitise and distribute other people’s literary property free of charge. Remote Supply entails copying and copying entails permission fees. There is a rather muffled paragraph (11) on this thorny topic: ‘Our plans depend critically on our ability to negotiate rights with publishers to enable the electronic document storage and transmission technologies to be exploited.’ It is not clear whether the BL is actually negotiating with the Publishers Association on this matter, or just hoping for the best. Whatever the outcome, it will not be cheap for the end user in John O’ Groats. Another difficulty lies in the obsolete provisions of traditional copyright definition. In the past, the BM and BL have built up the bulk of their magnificent collections on the cheap, by means of the copyright deposit law. If you publish a book, you must give a copy gratis to the BL. Panizzi in the 1850s began the practice of taking disobedient publishers to the courts and his successors have been similarly vigilant.

The deposit law does not, however, cover ‘electronic documents’. Chadwyck-Healey was not obliged to deposit its indispensable £23,000 ‘English Poetry on CD-ROM’ database; nor OUP its new (and equally indispensable) OED on CD-ROM; nor, presumably, will the Encyclopedia Britannica have to deposit its new electronic forms of issue. As technology marches on, more and more material will be electronically published, and the BL will have no privilege other than (possibly) a small educational discount. Paragraph 44 pathetically informs us that ‘the Library will continue to urge the Government to extend legal deposit provisions to cover electronic documents and audio-visual and multi-media materials. In the meantime we shall continue to acquire publications in audio-visual and new media by encouraging deposit and donation and by purchase insofar as resources permit.’

Publishers do not love the copyright deposit law. Nor do they like the ways that libraries have been forming consortia and Local Area Networks, so as to avoid multiple purchase (and, in another area, site-licence restrictions). One of the reasons that the average sale of academic monographs has sunk so catastrophically over the past five years is the electronic efficiency of libraries in cross-cataloguing and inter-library loan. A battle is looming between the publishing and library industries. Having been extorted for some ten million volumes over the years publishers will look very coldly on the BL’s begging bowl. And, quite rightly, they will see RDS as further eroding their retail market. For their part, Tory governments do not like taxes on business (which is what the copyright deposit law is). The BL’s ‘urging’ of preferential legislation will fall on deaf ears. The one certain thing is that the BL’s electronic holdings in the year 2000 will be unworthy of ‘The World’s Leading Resource for Scholarship, Research and Innovation’.

‘Resources’ is, of course, the big question-mark over this depressing document. By moving so decisively to a high-tech environment, the BL has put itself on an escalator to potential disaster. IT is inherently expensive. Many scholars will have learned this lesson in their personal budgeting. If, on graduation in 1963, your joyous parents gave you a portable manual typewriter, the chances are that thirty years later the little machine will still be going strong. All it will have cost in servicing is a twice-yearly ribbon. If, in 1983, you bought a computer and printer (for a real cost of many times the typewriter) chances are you will have upgraded two or three times since then, at crippling expense. So too with libraries. Automated catalogues obsolesce long before they wear out and there are no cheap options down the line. Converting book holdings to digitised form will dwarf the (by no means negligible) expenses of book conservation.

The nightmare facing BL 2000 is glimpsed in the paragraphs on ‘Estates’ and ‘Finance’.

The Library will run out of storage space by 1999 ... We shall continue to impress on Government the absolute necessity of retaining the land to the north of the St Pancras Site. Further development, critical to the Library’s future needs, will be prevented unless this land is retained ... The major initiatives, such as networking and electronic-document capture, storage and transmission, will need substantial investment, amounting to some £28 million ... the Library’s operational grant-in-aid has declined in real terms over the past ten years and the indications are that we shall continue to operate within a tough financial environment in the future. In addition, the Library faces significant additional costs during the period of its transition to St Pancras and, when the moves are complete and all off-setting payments have been made, the full costs of the Library’s estate will be higher than present.

In short, the BL is committed to spending large amounts of new money on a number of fronts, and will get less from the Treasury than it has in the past. It needs more space and – barring some unlikely change of heart on the Government’s part – it will lose such a large chunk of its new site as to render the whole point of moving invalid. In the past, the great expansionist spasms (the move from Montagu House to the new Museum Building in the 1830s; the construction of the Iron Library in the 1850s; the resort to Woolwich outhousing in the 1960s) have allowed the Library twenty to fifty years of growth. No one apparently knows exactly when the BL is going to move to St Pancras, and this document studiously avoids any mention of dates. But five, four or three years after the biggest spasm of all, the St Pancras facility will be chock-a-block. This is a ‘strategy’? The Library faces a crunch, and its main hope is a blank cheque and the gift of some prime real estate from a government which has shown itself willing to close Barts and unwilling to invest in King’s Cross as the Chunnel terminus. Some hope. There is one other remedy, and be sure it will be taken. What are now free services (e.g. the reader’s ticket, access to stored material) will become ‘priced services’. Where priced services (e.g. cheap Xeroxing) ‘fail to meet their direct cost recovery targets’ they will be discontinued or raised to the highest level the market will bear. The British Library in 2000 will not be a place where penurious and ‘unenterprising’ scholars will find a happy home.

Many of these issues are taken up in Robin Alston’s inaugural lecture as professor in the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at UCL.[*] Alston, although adept in new technology, is sceptical about the utopianism which underlies the BL’s strategic thinking. He believes that the community of librarians was ‘hijacked’ in the Seventies by the merchandisers of electronic goods in ‘one of the most wonderful of conspiracies in the history of librarianship’. The flight from the book and the index card to the computer was not progress, but a Gadarene rush. Alston suspects that there is ‘a hidden agenda behind this sudden interest in digital text data storage’: namely, the long-term rundown of the library and academic professions by remote service and remote teaching. He predicts that remote usage of libraries (‘cruising the electronic highways’) will lose all its attraction once tolls are introduced. ‘Of course it is possible to digitise and index the contents of all the world’s important libraries and archives’, Alston judges, ‘but the question we must answer is, who would benefit from such a colossal enterprise? Commerce or knowledge? Are libraries in the control of visionaries or are they in the control of irresistible economic forces which we ignore at our peril?’

Judging by past experience the BL will probably muddle through, confounding both utopian and dystopian expectations. Its history of muddling through is celebrated in The Library of the British Museum. The book was designed as a memorial ‘while there are still persons available who can remember the institution as it was forty or fifty years ago’. Essays on apparently dry subjects such as ‘The Shelving and Classification of Printed Books’ (F.J. Hill) or ‘The Acquisitions Policies and Funding of the Department of Printed Books, 1837 – 1959’ (Ilse Sternberg) prove to be extraordinarily illuminating. Paul Cross offers (at last) an authoritative inside history of the Private Case, and Alec Hyatt King wraps the collection up with ‘Some Memoirs of the British Museum and its Music Room’ (King has some sharp things to say about Angus Wilson – or ‘Angus Frank Johnstone-Wilson’ as his early colleagues remember him). What comes across most strongly from the volume is the institution’s ability to endure. It has survived the chronic stinginess of the Treasury, the cuts of successive Chancellors climaxing in the Geddes Axe of 1922, and the Luftwaffe’s bombs. It has survived drastic questioning of its own identity (National Library or Universal Library?) and numerous directors less able than the magnificent Panizzi. If one wants hope for the future it is to be found looking backward to the amiably stuffy expertise and indomitable pride in service commemorated in this volume. Let us hope, in other words, that the British Library can survive the strategic objectives of Brian Lang as serenely as it survived those of the Dornier and Heinkel.

[*] ‘The Battle of the Books’, by Robin Alston, is available from the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies, University College London, Gower St, London WC1.