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.

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[*] ‘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.