The British Library's Future: Shiny, Locked-Down Knowledge?

Yesterday, Computerworld UK carried an interesting report headed “British Library explores research technologies of the future”. Here's what it hopes to achieve: At the end of the Growing Knowledge exhibition, the British Library...


Yesterday, Computerworld UK carried an interesting report headed "British Library explores research technologies of the future". Here's what it hopes to achieve:

At the end of the Growing Knowledge exhibition, the British Library will evaluate the tools and decide which have been most useful for researchers – a term the library uses to describe anyone using its resources.

Richard Boulderstone, CIO at the British Library, explained: "It's about trying to explore what tools and services we should provide for researchers in future. What is the future of the library? What tools, spaces, technologies should we provide for researchers?"

Sounds great, no? Well, maybe. The problem is that one particular company seems to have colonised the exhibition:

For the first time, the British Library has made six months' of live TV and radio broadcasts from 18 channels across the UK, available for research. Using the audio search tool that the library has developed with Microsoft, Izard said the search capability was "about 70 percent accurate."

Researchers can also experiment with a Microsoft Surface Table, on which the British Library is showing an interactive, digital version of the world's longest painting, the 19th century Garibaldi Panorama.

Perhaps that's not so surprising, since Microsoft is the British Library's "software partner" according to the article. It's a long-standing, multi-faceted relationship, which includes things like work on digitisation (now ended, it seems):

The British Library's ongoing projects to make thousands of books and other resources available digitally won't slow down significantly, despite the ending last week of a partnership with Microsoft, a senior library official said Friday.

Microsoft formed a partnership with the library in November 2005 to fund the scanning of up to 100,000 out-of-copyright 19th century books, or around 20 million pages. The scanning work will continue for a while longer until the last 40,000 books are finished, said Neil Fitzgerald, digitisation project manager.

The British Library was also heavily involved in the formalisation of Microsoft's OOXML, providing the vice-chairman for the original TC45 Office Open XML group (that is, OOXML). The convenor of the much-contested ISO meeting that finally approved OOXML, Alex Brown, is also linked with the British Library:

Alex Brown is convenor of the ISO/IEC DIS 29500 Ballot Resolution Process, and has recently been elected to the panel to advise the British Library on how to handle digital submission of journal articles.

Interestingly, Brown now seems to view the OOXML standard in a somewhat different light:

In short, we find ourselves at a crossroads, and it seems to me that without a change of direction the entire OOXML project is now surely heading for failure.

Which makes the British Library's support for Microsoft's format even more problematic.

But the real problem with the British Library is not just this technical short-sightedness. There is a far deeper issue that goes to the heart of what a research library is for. This can be seen most clearly from the existence of the "Business and IP Centre" at the British Library, where we are told:

Intellectual property (IP) can help you protect your ideas and make money from them.

Our resources and workshops will guide you through the four types of intellectual property: patents, trade marks, registered designs and copyright.

Now, recall that "IP" is just a polite name for time-limited, state-enforced intellectual monopolies. These are fundamentally and inherently about limiting people's access to various kinds of knowledge. They are diametrically opposed to the stated role of the British Library, whose exhortation to visitors to its home page is: "Explore the world's knowledge."

That is precisely what you cannot do freely if that knowledge is subject to constraining intellectual monopolies, especially if enforced through things like DRM. And to the response that this is irrelevant, and that you can get items from the British Library simply by following the official procedures, try reading this extraordinary tale from Groklaw: it's long, detailed – and disturbing.

There's another page on the British Library site, in the Document Supply Services section, that helps us understand what the underlying problem is. Here's what we find there:

The traditional method of recompensing the creator and/or the investor in creativity (normally the publisher) is to purchase a copy of the book or recording or take out a subscription to a journal. Some people, for a whole variety of reasons, do not always wish to do this. They may only want to read a single journal article or book chapter and feel that a subscription or purchase of the complete publication is simply not worth the cost. In response to this need, some publishers now sell single articles from their journals.

There is no mention of the hugely-important open access movement that seeks to make publicly-funded research freely available online. It's as if the British Library were stuck in the early 1990s, unaware of the revolutions taking place in digital scholarship. But the paragraph that precedes this is even worse:

If there were no copyright, it would be impossible for creative people to make a living from their creativity. No one would be willing to come up with the money to make a film, to write or publish a book or journal, or to bring out a record – because there would be no way of earning a return on that investment. Now that it is so easy to copy material, it is more vital than ever that we respect copyright so that people continue to produce the creative works that society needs. This is why copyright law has a method for providing financial reward to creators for uses of their intellectual property.

This extraordinary encomium on the joys of intellectual monopolies, and of locking down knowledge, is the antithesis of what a library – never mind a great one – is about: making the fruits of human creativity as widely available as possible, regardless of whether you can afford to pay every time (see the Groklaw post for details of the BL costs.) From its beginning, copyright has been about "the Encouragement of Learning" not "providing financial reward to creators".

Moreover, there is not the slightest sign here that the British Library understands anything about the effect that the Internet is having on creating a massive, innovative market of non-rivalrous, abundant digital goods. There seems to be no inkling that plenty of companies make money by giving stuff away (actually, it's how most television channels, newspapers and industry magazines have worked for decades, so it's not even a new idea.)

Fitting, then, how in this incredibly backward-looking statement the second line - "No one would be willing to come up with the money to make a film, to write or publish a book or journal, or to bring out a record – because there would be no way of earning a return on that investment" - offers an eerie echo of something someone else wrote in 1976:

As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?


Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free?

That was Bill Gates in his famous "Open Letter to Hobbyists", a little before the free software movement demonstrated rather nicely how thousands of people could – and would – do professional work for nothing. Given this similarity of mindsets, it's perhaps no wonder the British Library feels such an affinity for his company.

Update: Mike Linksvayer has reminded me about comments made earlier this year by Dame Lynne Brindley, Chief Executive of the British Library:

There is a supreme irony that just as technology is allowing greater access to books and other creative works than ever before for education and research, new restrictions threaten to lock away digital content in a way we would never countenance for printed material.

Let's not wake up in five years' time and realise we have unwittingly lost a fundamental building block for innovation, education and research in the UK. Who is protecting the public interest in the digital world? We need to redefine copyright in the digital age and find a balance to benefit creators, educators, researchers, the creative industries – and the knowledge economy.

Supreme irony indeed...

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