2011 Charles Holden Lecture

 

I must apologise for the sorry lack of posts recently. I have been finishing a book on the Senate House LIbrary collections and also writing a lecture. In the previous week I wrote over 37,000 words. Either this is impressive or obsessive, or perhaps both. Anyway, thanks to so many people who came to the lecture and who’ve asked for the text. I thought it best to upload it here. The video will soon be available on iTunesU as well. Settle back…

Borges meets Orwell: The 21st Century Research Library

The 2011 Charles Holden Lecture

I would like to begin by thanking the Friends of Senate House Library for inviting me to give this year’s Charles Holden lecture. I would like to take this prestigious opportunity to offer some thoughts on where I believe the priorities and strengths lie for research libraries in the 21st Century. I will view the future of research libraries alongside the future of research universities as their fates are inextricably linked. For the most part in this lecture I am also considering collections in the humanities and social sciences, as this is my own professional field and also the principal role of our libraries at Senate House. Finally, I will view the world of knowledge through the eyes of two writers. At first glance, there may be little similarity between the works of Borges and of Orwell. From the perspective of a librarian however, I hope to explore how each man has constructed and investigated truth. And it is the elusive concept of truth that is at the heart of this year’s lecture, as it is also at the centre of how I believe, through the act of collecting, libraries find purpose and meaning.

Senate House Libraries and our research role

To elaborate on the essential contribution made by libraries to the research process, it is important to first provide a context. Most importantly it is critical to note what may be seen as the obvious, that all libraries are not the same. The context of libraries is defined by three areas; Coverage; Intensivity; Scale.

Coverage: Science libraries differ from humanities libraries.

It is possible to measure the value of science libraries by usage, either physically or online. Science and medical librarians rarely interpret their collections, their principal role being to provide access. Few people enter the library profession with higher science degrees. In the humanities, the partnership between librarians and their users is often deeper owing to shared academic experience. Usage is key to the humanities too, but what happens beyond the library gate is very different between science and humanities collections.

Intensivity: Teaching collections are not as complex as research collections.

Management processes drive teaching-intensive collections. The role of the library is to follow course tutors in the provision of multiple copies of books and online materials that support reading lists. Acquisition and disposal are repetitive and uncomplicated tasks. There are important training and information literacy contributions made by the library, but the collection development itself is not the key role. In research-intensive collections, the reverse is true, where some teaching support is provided, but the roots of expertise lie in knowledge of extensive holdings and in their coordinated growth.

Scale: Large libraries change in different ways to small libraries

Scale is definitive, in that the future of small libraries is likely to be fundamentally divergent to that of large libraries. The future of small libraries has already been transformed by the Internet age. In the next five years, a relatively small teaching collection will be effectively redundant due to mass digitisation programmes of texts and the greater availability and acceptance of eBooks. These libraries will focus on training and designing collaborative spaces. The large research library has a more complex future. Many millions of materials will remain in print and analogue form. Many more will continue to be produced in those forms, or with digital surrogates. The interpretation, management and expansion of research collections will become ever more multifaceted. This will be most acute in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

The three facets of the above context in which libraries operate within universities present themselves in a particular way at Senate House Libraries. These constitute very large research collections in the arts, humanities and social sciences. The librarian’s role is complex because of a higher degree of subject knowledge than is common in science. The collection is complex because it is based on expansion and depth, rather than relegation and recycling. The scale is important because it affects the libraries’ ratio between future print and digital collections, a ratio fast disappearing in smaller institutions.

Libraries in other research-intensive environments share these characteristics, such as in the larger members of the Russell Group. However, there are two additional factors that define the role of libraries in the process of research facilitation at Senate House Libraries. Firstly, many of the collections are not only large but are amongst the finest of their field in the world. Secondly, a considerable percentage of these collections are held on the open shelf in central London. This provides a unique provision of internationally important materials made easily accessible, and defines the role of Senate House in the sector and as a partner of the British Library, whose collections are closed access.

The nature of humanities, social science and arts research still requires engagement with and the development of, large physical collections. The principal research outputs in these fields are still in printed form. Research libraries in the broader humanities though, are not merely stores. A research project is a partnership between the researcher and the library from the earliest survey of current materials, through the interpretation of materials or digital environments, finally to the placement of that research in the setting of the library. Research is concerned with discovery. Libraries are the essential mode of travel.

Funds spent on libraries as a generic service are an entirely different matter to those spent on world-class, unique, rich collections in the heart of London. The remit of the School of Advanced Study, University of London is to act as a focus, as a symposium for research facilitation in the arts, humanities and social sciences in the United Kingdom. This is performed in central London for a reason: as part of the greatest concentration of libraries anywhere in the world. Nowhere else in the UK can offer this combination of access, intellectual importance and geographical setting.

In 1936, the architect of Senate House, Charles Holden began building this art deco masterpiece. The library is designed to be a building that would only stand naturally in London. There are echoes of the lives of other great universities, such as in the inclusion of cloisters, but Holden did not design faux-medieval or classical copies. The cloisters at Senate House are new ideas born of Elegance, Purity, Integrity and Coherence. As in all the vast spaces of Senate House, they are epic in every sense.

Senate House was designed to stand at the centre of the third great English university. It was to be a university rooted in the contemporary world, and only at home in the world’s capital.

Holden designed to a level of detail unusual amongst even the finest architects. There is a ‘Greek’ motif, variations on which decorate not only the architraves of the front elevation but also the backs of chairs, the staircases and railings, the moldings of doors and cornices and even some of the wood paneling in the Senate Chamber. Every single one of thousands of light fittings is an art deco original.

Perhaps the most striking infrastructural feature of the building is its least known. Senate House can only ever be a library. From Floor 7 to Floor 19, the supporting mechanism for this early skyscraper is bookshelves. They are welded into the skeleton girders and rise in perfect symmetry for about two hundred feet over London. If you ever want to sense what it is to have millions of books directly above your head, just stand in the foyer of Senate House.

The public floors of 4 to 7 are, particularly in the cases of floors 5 and 6, spaces of almost indescribable immensity. There are some views where it is almost possible to see roughly from the North to the South of the building. It is as though the great circle of The British Museum Reading Room had been rolled out flat. There are others, for instance when walking into the Goldsmiths’ Reading Room, where your breath will be removed for a short time before being dutifully replaced in order that you might continue researching.

Goldsmiths’ is a room built specifically for a collection of the same name, the Goldsmiths’ Collection of Economic Literature. Dating from the 15th Century to the 21st Century there are some exceptional items, and important strata, such as the history of slavery. The room itself has lines of bookshelves carved from English walnut and a ceiling in Canadian cedar. Resulting in a large stained glass version of the University arms, two rows of high windows provide extra height to a room that I believe to be the most beautiful academic library space in Britain. (For the record, the number two spot might be claimed by the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge and the number three by the John Ryland’s Library at Manchester.

There are many further examples of Holden’s genius and clarity of vision throughout his great white library. The essential thing to note though is that this is an epic building made of comparative microcosms.  Its architectural coherence means that when you close your fingers around a door-handle you are symbolically holding the entire tower.

In the next few weeks our long refurbishment will be one stage closer to completion. This has painstakingly recast Senate House in its original 1930’s élan. Every piece of furniture, all of which were also designed by Holden has been reconditioned. Light fittings have been removed and cleaned. It will give back to London its tallest art deco structure.

Following so much original care under Charles Holden’s pencil, and the enormous effort of the refurbishment project we must be equally thoughtful about how we create a research experience that is not only surrounded by art deco wonders, but is inspired by them. Senate House was born of clear design principles.

There are many projects to be undertaken at the library, but perhaps one of the most important now is to rethink our physical and web presence in terms that would meet with Holden’s agreement. For a man who designed almost every armchair in the building he could, I am sure, be guaranteed to have had an opinion.

There are many great, new library buildings but in general they are either driven by public or teaching agendas, which moreover means there are generally very few books, or there are thousands of similar ones. Senate House is a tower of research materials, millions of individual titles.

We should be clear concerning what we are aiming for. An EPIC library is not one solely defined by its collections, but one where its products and services, to appropriate terms from commerce, are recognised to be driven by principles not just profit, or in our case reader numbers.

This means that we intend to develop services around those four words; elegance, purity, integrity and coherence. This would be an aim that would sit easily with most large libraries but at Senate House we have an added incentive; Holden built the entire library and designed most of its contents on very similar principles. Our responsibility is not only to English Heritage to ensure that the light fittings are correct. Our accountability is to Charles Holden. We must, as far as is possible, place nothing in these spaces that wrestles with the original design. We must, again as far as possible, create services within the building and on our websites that are true to Holden’s ideas on simplicity and usability. In short, the Senate House Library design principles were written in 1936 but now need to be reinvigorated for the 21st Century.

For a research library of the intellectual depth of Senate House, no detail should be considered too small. That the collections are held in a building formed from design principles of modernist simplicity is an important opportunity. Senate House confirms its function and usability by adhering to those principles. Integrity is derived through clearly stating purpose. The purpose of Senate House was made physical by Holden and will be secured for the future by allowing the objects and designs of the contemporary world to integrate with their art deco surroundings. Every technology, every sight line, every website, every product and every service in such an important building needs to be considered in terms of design, as something people interact with. Everything we do in the library must have a rationale.

A word on the act of collecting

The library is not a new idea, in fact librarians may well lay claim to being one of the oldest professions – although I doubt we are the oldest.

The Latin author and grammarian, Aulus Gellius describes the birth of the library as both a concept and tactile collection like this in around 150AD:

The tyrant Pisistratus is said to have been the first to possess books of the liberal arts that were to be supplied for the public’s reading at Athens. Later the Athenians themselves augmented them in a learned and accurate manner; but after Xerxes had obtained the whole abundance of books and had burned the city apart from its citadel, he took them away and brought them to Persia. Then the Seleucid King, called Nicanor, took care that all the books were returned to Athens a long time later.

As an aside, this may be the first recorded case of that bain of the librarian’s life – the late return of books! The narrative, which is quoted in full in a recent book by Yun Lee Too, ‘The Idea of the Library in the Ancient World,’ is a description of the beginnings of the library in Greco-Roman antiquity. Not only is the description a clear attempt to claim the idea of the library as Greek, rather than Babylonian or Assyrian but it is also a clear picture of the library as a collection of texts that is passed down from ruler to ruler, from society to society, across cultures until it arrives in Alexandria – the great iconic library of the past. It crucially retains, as Yun Lee Too notes, the ‘identity of ‘library,’ indeed the library. In this sense the library of antiquity is also ‘global,’ being the only collection of its time. Smaller certainly than our own world collection, but then the world too was smaller and less known then.

What I believe we share with ancient culture in our understanding of the role of the library is a sense that knowledge can be passed from generation to generation. It may happen faster and in more ways now, but information was a shared, precious and powerful commodity in antiquity as it is for us. Texts were carried from past to present and it is this narrative, unbroken and incorruptible that gives the library its power and validity. In antiquity the very act of collecting, of bringing together many texts injects into each book an added command over the population. The early library is the material meaning of the phrase ‘safety in numbers.’

As the library is passed through the centuries it results in fascinating concepts that outlive anyone who cares for it – our lifetimes are nothing in comparison to the immortality of the collections we receive and add to and leave for others. This process of what might be called textual adoption creates canonicity and, as Xerxes and Hitler and many others knew, books mean power. So, the library, that has been passed to us in many forms and is most recently constituted as the Internet, is a trajectory of political power, of stories, of wealth, of failure and of the determination of human beings to record and collect and organise and preserve. The library of today is a continuum of the library recorded by Aulus Gellius – indeed, all research libraries prove that knowledge is not linear because of rediscovery. Libraries are labyrinths.

Borges

The writer perhaps most concerned with the power of books is Borges. This writer can be ‘read’ in as many ways as he wrote; as magical realist, as literary science fiction, as surrealist poet or as avant-garde essayist. Behind all of these epithets though there remains an extraordinarily honest mind. Borges’ ability to imagine mazes was in one sense the life-long achievement of the finest deception. It is a fiction made of lies in the strictest sense because the work proposes the existence of worlds that cannot be true. However, it is based on the reality of Borges’ own mind, his personal world view and I would be the last to call any great writer a liar simply because he could not prove the physical presence of one of his creations.

His profession defined Borges as much as politics and artistic antecedents influenced him. No writer has reimagined the entirety of human knowledge in such compellingly brief detail. (The only other notable attempt, although not a literary one was by Dewey). The ‘library’ for Borges, himself a librarian of international importance, became eternally associated with the concept of labyrinths. Within this construct we find the true Borges.

Borges’ heroes and heroines play out their lives in what, at first glance appear to be environments unknown to the laws of physics or the convictions of religion. Incidentally, it is this aspect of his work that makes him more than a writer of beautiful stories. It means his stories are also genuinely controversial in the challenges they set to our own understanding of what is possible in terms of science, or what may be possible in terms of religion.

Borges is important as an artist because he takes a position between the two great modern sides of the debate on human purpose, or its absence – on one side the apparently unassailable evidence found in atoms and on the other, the equally impregnable certainty held by billions of people, that they are in direct contact with a deity. Borges’ position though is not that of the agnostic, which would get him nowhere and would make his labyrinth nothing more than a mental toy. His writing is derived from a third truth; that art itself can offer an answer to the confusion of life.

In Borges’ labyrinth we find a place literally built on the entire measurement of human knowledge and experience. This is his literary vision. Additionally, we see an environment that most closely resembles the only atmosphere that could support such epic, discoverable life: the library itself.

When Borges achieved his long-held dream of becoming the Librarian of the National Library of Argentina it was a dream realised initially as a nightmare. He said, ‘God finally gave me all the books I had craved and then removed my sight.’ It was a cruelty akin to Beethoven’s deafness or Ravel’s apraxia, but it did not halt either Borges’ reading or his ability to conceive works of art.

In his short story, ‘The Library of Babel,’ Borges merges his professional understanding of libraries with his personal view of the ultimate authority of texts. The Library is endless, containing all the knowledge in the world. It is populated by people (acting here as eternal librarians), who move amongst the endless shelves and point-less spirals of books. They are searching for a way to comprehend this place of comprehensive knowledge.

In the hexagonal rooms of Babel, Borges created the most compelling description not only of libraries but also, it might be said of the Internet. Owing to the epic deception of his imagination we are also shown the truth about libraries from a rare perspective; that of a librarian who was also a writer of genius. Borges holds a view common to librarians that it is the knowledge itself, the books indeed, which are the real purpose. The act of collecting is its own religious fervour and its own scientific proof.

The purpose of libraries is not to reflect human knowledge or trends but to exist beyond these things. In imagining something from nothing, Borges uniquely describes an everything. It is a literary device no doubt, but also one envisioned by professional conviction, resulting in a Library containing all other lies and truths. This library needs to be understood for what it is, a precious and valuable resource. The Library of Babel is in that sense no different from any other. It is a construct owned by the public. Books form libraries and each book is created in private for public use.

A single book is a library of references, reflections and rediscoveries. When placed beside another it becomes a collection. As part of a group of millions it transforms towards Babel.

Borges perhaps could not have predicted that librarians who began practising in the last ten years have had the phrases, ‘the death of the book,’ and ‘the end of libraries’ ringing in our ears for much of our careers. Yet, relegate a book to the store and you invite letters to national publications. Reduce opening hours and be prepared to sit through aggressive student committees – and in both cases, sometimes rightly so. If libraries are dying, a lot of people haven’t noticed.

Libraries in all their forms are organisations managing the delivery and care of intellectual content to all disciplines and to all aspects of society. They are multi-million pound services, often with hundreds of staff serving tens of thousands of people, and they are linked across the world as the ‘global library.’ Individual libraries have never been the only source of information, but they have always been the most significant point of access.

One of the finest characteristics of humans is our ability to share. In the academic library context this has meant, and is still defined by libraries’ contribution to the archiving and rediscovery of human action. This has allowed us to provide access to quality research through the global library and to offer help, space and time to students and researchers in traditional reading rooms and collaborative learning centres.

At the heart of all universities, the library in its many facets continues to balance tensions between print and digital collections, between the demands of teaching and research, between the arts and sciences, and perhaps most importantly, between the commercial supply of research information and support for its creation in academic practice.

Libraries are present at the generation of ideas, in delivering content to the desktop and the desk top. They deliver in perpetuity for results and theories. Libraries bring people into contact with innovation, with innovators and with each other. They draw an inconceivably long line of thought in every discipline to the minds of current thinkers. Libraries are critical in our need to share and to discover. They are vital in allowing access to our recorded thoughts by those who follow us.

Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science are principles upon which the practice of librarianship still rests:

I. Books are for use.

II. Every reader his [or her] book.

III. Every book its reader.

IV. Save the time of the reader.

V. The library is a growing organism.

These typically succinct compressions of what it means to manage vast quantities of information for an immeasurable number of readers, have carried the world’s library services through some unsettling times. The question is, are they still relevant in a world where so much content is beyond the library walls?

The Internet is the railway of our generation. It has transformed life, at least in the western world. The library profession took a while to realise that it, unfavourably caricatured as it often is, had found itself in the midst of the greatest shift in human society for generations. Librarians, once guardians of knowledge had become its inertia. Or so it has been alleged by parts of academia.

I have heard keynote speakers at conferences challenging the profession to wake up (in the early years of the web) or give up (more recently). We have all read statements by people critical of libraries who are not themselves criticised for collection management decisions, (affectionately referred to as ‘the bin’). People who do not sit in student union meetings trying to find an answer as to why it’s no longer possible to read D.H. Lawrence at 3am in the library. People, in summary, that do not actually manage libraries, or perhaps people (and this includes many in government), who seem to think that all libraries are the same.

It is perhaps not fully comprehended that for the most part, the use of one library is in fact the use of all the world’s libraries. The systems of Inter-Library Loans and now, shared digital resources allows access to quantities of books and electronic content across countries and continents, halted only by licences and local laws. It is also not fully recognised that librarians have been at the forefront of challenging commercial practices that are detrimental to students and to the sharing of ideas, indeed to society.

Commentators, who use the term ‘the future of libraries,’ do imply an understanding that all libraries are in some way linked. What is missing, in defining the future of libraries in this way, is that not all libraries serve the same purpose. Even in higher education the differences are stark.

The twenty-five or so libraries which form Research Libraries UK hold data and physical collections on a scale not replicated in other parts of the sector. This is derived from age. Collecting takes time and enough time offers breadth and depth. In the UK sector this is most notable in Oxford and Cambridge, but other large print collections exist at Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Senate House Libraries, SOAS and the LSE. In these cases a combination of investment, attraction to benefactors or even geographical location serves to increase the scale of collections.

In the past size has been important. Universities have used their libraries not only to appeal to students but also to researchers, who in turn have added depth to the collection. In this way, libraries have been major contributors to the formation of hierarchy in British universities, not only in themselves but also in what they support and whom they attract.

Google currently holds the cards to the ability of these institutions to continue to think of their libraries as special in this way. When Google extricates itself from the courts they will be able to release ten million (and counting) digitised books onto the Internet. In the UK this has the potential to level the playing the field between the Russell Group, those with important but smaller collections in the 1994 Group and those with very different libraries in the rest of the sector. Google will mean, if not immediately then certainly soon, that all universities will have similar library collections.

However, despite its current position, Google is only an example of how the world is changing around our libraries. Very few companies exist forever, or survive unchanged and unchallenged. Many of the materials in research libraries will outlive us and will need care long after Google itself becomes a footnote. The content of libraries teaches us much, but the most important lesson is that change is constant.

With or without Google, mass digitisation of books and journals will be a strong trend in combination with pervasive computing. The legal implications of these developments are yet to be resolved. Google’s mass digitisation programmes, now including languages and cultures beyond the English-speaking world, are the largest single transfer of knowledge from one format to another in human history. However, they are also only part of that history, not its conclusion.

Additionally, printed or digitised, Ranganathan’s laws remind us that the library is made up of more than books. A library is space – collections – readers – librarians. Google is focused on collections, as is the case with almost all technology. As an advertising company it is not surprising that it wishes to use content to attract advertisers to its services, in fact we could learn a lot from them. What might be learnt reciprocally is that the library as a space filled with people is part of Google’s future. It is not closed by it.

I remember two things most clearly as a trainee librarian: the unpredictability of questions at the Enquiry Desk: the demanding queues at the Issue Desk. I still see both in libraries. Even with many services available online and self-issue now ubiquitous, readers continue to visit the physical library and they still expect to find librarians inside it. This is especially so for subject specialists in large research libraries. The web has greatly improved our ability to communicate but, as with dating sites, it is a tool for actually meeting people rather than a substitute for human contact. Libraries in the future will continue to embrace technology but only to enhance existing services, not to replace them.

In the late 1990’s, as the Internet was beginning to impact on academia, we began to use the phrase ‘the hybrid library,’ to describe the emerging environment of print and digital collections. The term has been out-of-use for some time but may be appropriate now, not to describe the collections, as such a fusion is now common, but to describe the readers’ future experience of the physical library. A reader still wishes to work in the library but will increasingly work with greater access to digital collections via mobile devices. The library will continue to provide suitable environments for both solace and collaboration, but will be enhanced by the web. Reading rooms will increasingly merge with websites.

Of course, there are discipline variations for the academic library. Its physical use is less important to science than to the humanities, although content is still managed in both fields by the library.

There are also the differences in libraries. For most academic libraries, electronic resources have been transformative. ‘Early English Books Online’ put the Bodleian onto the shelves of universities that could never acquire the original materials. For the large research libraries, the opportunity to redefine historic and special collections as the heart of their service is the next iteration of the hybrid library. The web encourages physical meetings. Digitisation of manuscripts brings greater demand to see the original.

The near future for all libraries will depend on genuine innovation in their web presences. The distant future for research libraries will be defined by an acceptance that size is no longer everything, but that close collaboration between librarians and academics in exploiting the complex scientific research web, in parallel with dynamic access to historic collections (some of which are already born digital), will be what readers want. In the future the library will continue to be a ‘growing organism.’

 

Orwell

George Orwell was inspired to use the library at Senate House as the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen eighty-four. His wife at the time was working in Senate House during WWII, as it had been commissioned by the government to provide accommodation for the Ministry of Information. On the roof of the library, there are still the disconnected phone lines direct to the Cabinet War Rooms. Senate House was the tallest building in London during the War, (apart from the crucifix atop St. Paul’s Cathedral), and the library acted as a viewing tower to watch for the Luftwaffe coming up the line of the Thames to bomb central London. The library played an important part in the defence of London. Orwell still plays an essential role in the defence of freedom.

‘The notion that you can somehow defeat violence by submitting to it is simply a flight from fact…Underneath this lies the hard fact, so difficult for many people to face, that individual salvation is not possible, that the choice before human beings is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils. You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. There is no other choice before you, and whichever you choose you will not come out with clean hands.’

George Orwell wrote this in his anti-pacifist essay ‘No, Not One.’ This seems to me a clear and realistic position to take on the matter of aggression and a viable response to it. I have struggled with an innate pacifism for many years, formed on the streets of late 20th Century Belfast. When you live amongst violence you quickly grow to hate it. Yet, I was aware that others, older and braver than myself stood between the bombers and me. Now these people are younger but they still stand between my life and those who, despite how distant this might seem to many in Britain, want to kill us.

Orwell authored hundreds of essays. These are often published alongside reviews of other people’s books, as it was often his habit to use a book review to discuss his own views of the novelist’s concerns. ‘No, Not One,’ is a famous dismissal of pacifism but it is in fact a book review, this time of Alex Comfort’s ‘No Such Liberty,’ which was published in 1941. Orwell thought most reviewers were idiots, forced by the need to be paid to say that all books were good, as the publishers were advertising in the Sunday papers.

The thrust behind ‘No, Not One,’ is that society is imperfect. It is faced with brutal decisions as a permanent state of being, and that any attempt to say otherwise is precious, unrealistic and dangerous. When Orwell writes as Nazism becomes dominant in Europe, it is too easy to reduce the authority of his voice to a particular time. He writes of his own desperate present, but also of ours and of the future. There will always be war. There will always be violence. There will always be conflict. There will forever be a need for some to stand between the armed and the unarmed.

Orwell believed that society depended ultimately on coercion. He adds a subtlety that the police officer does not hold this society together, but the common goodwill, which does sustain it, is powerless without the police to support it.

As one of the most important observers of English culture, (although it is hardly different from any other), Orwell makes two fairly blunt statements in this ‘book review.’ Firstly, that the working classes are never pacifists because they live so close to violence, or as Orwell puts it, ‘their life teaches them something different.’ Second, that those who are pacifist hold a fake moral superiority based only on the real sacrifices made by others. They conveniently forget about those who stand, between what Orwell calls ‘their research-lives,’ and the gun. The police are ignored or criticised by people who at that moment have no need of them.

To Orwell, pacifism was a sign of luxury. This is not to say that war is good. It isn’t. The question is how do we respond to violence? Orwell at least had the defence of western civilisation to call for, and he knew his enemy.

I did not think anything of seeing, on the walk to school in Belfast, a Landover with its rear doors open and soldiers with machine-guns hanging out of the back. I thought nothing of going to bed with the constant sound of helicopters, and the frequent, mostly distant sound of bombs or gunfire. I only experienced a bomb physically once, which was enough to shake me out of any real thought for pacifism that I may have otherwise tended towards.

This is not to say that violence is ever justified as an end to itself. Defence is one thing but peace is a greater aim. The problem is that many people do not want peace.

The choice between submitting to Nazism and fighting it was no choice at all, and Orwell knew it. He knew that it mattered who won, even as he was honest in criticising Britain’s own imperial aggression. The choice between simply praying for peace and supporting the police in Northern Ireland was also no choice at all. There were people trying to kill us when we were shopping. There was evil on both sides because both sides were violent, but a choice had to be made between which was lesser and which greater.

Orwell makes us face this choice just as he did his own readers during the Blitz. He balances this overt support for the state of course with vicious attacks on it. In his major essay, ‘Why I Write,’ he says, ‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ This is not contradictory. It is reality. Orwell physically fought in Spain but his contribution was to write books. He stands for knowledge and stood for honesty. To stand against violence means to stand in the line of fire.

The Line of Fire

When the musket ball tore through the jacket it carried with it some of the gold braiding from the Admiral’s uniform. It drove through his shoulder and came to a halt inside one of his lungs. Nelson never stood a chance.

The surgeon steadied himself on the creaking boards of HMS Victory and cut into the dying man’s chest. He pulled out the musket ball and held it up to the light between his fingers for a few seconds. He made an historic decision. This was no ordinary musket ball. Not only had he just retrieved it from within Britain’s finest military hero but it also glittered as the gold braid had burned into the metal on entry. He handed it to a colleague who pocketed it. The surgeon heard the whisper of Nelson’s voice, ‘Kiss me, Hardy,’ before dying in front of his fellow sailors. He was lost but Britain was saved.

Over 200 years later a film crew arrive at Windsor Castle to make a documentary on the Royal Collections. The highlight of the entire programme is the camera slowly panning across a polished tabletop before halting over a gold locket. We only see how tiny it is when white-gloved fingers begin to open it. Inside is a musket ball with small pieces of gold braiding embedded in the rough sphere.

The UK cultural heritage sector is persistently under direct financial threat and being asked to justify its purpose. Simultaneously, billions of pounds are spent in the UK every month on placing contemporary soldiers and sailors in the line of fire. Britain has always been a fighting nation. It would be fair to say that it has probably started more wars than it has been drawn into. Only a few have genuinely been in self-defence but to be honest, that is not a concern on the whole. The debate for or against war usually ignores the fact that war will happen anyway.

What’s important is that there is an absence of balance in the national budget; our history is viewed as less important than our future. It begins in school, where the sciences, those great disciplines of discovery are plainly seen to be more significant than the other great disciplines of unearthing in the humanities. It continues in universities, where the humanities are always considered to be of less use to society because they cost less to teach and research. They only cost less because they do not receive enough money.

At the other end of the scale, the Large Hadron Collider, (whose purpose, if you’ll forgive me seems gravely pointless, as a need for God will still exist in people’s minds even if it is proved that two entities colliding resulted in the universe – where did those particles come from if they are responsible for everything?) is a machine that has cost almost enough to fund all historical research without limit in every university in the world for many, many years. What more could have been understood about humanity with that money?

Beyond education and into the world of government funding, the questions become more serious on a daily basis. I do not dismiss, for example the need for Britain to have global military reach. I do challenge the assumption that the present and future can be experienced without reference to the past. In other words, that any soldier can march in Afghanistan without knowing why he or she is there based on access to properly funded museums, libraries, universities and galleries which are developed through suitably funded research.

We are informed endlessly by the government that the country needs to ‘cut its cloth accordingly,’ or that ‘we cannot live beyond our means.’ These statements are irritating enough because they are so obvious. Every person in the UK does both each time they enter a supermarket.

The UK has enough money to fund defence and culture. Stop triggering sales in art galleries. Stop threatening museums. Stop closing libraries. Nelson took a bullet not for war itself but because he believed in what he was fighting for – the cultural significance and standing of Britain. That tiny gold-spattered shot represents our history. We can hold it only because the cultural sector exists.

The research library in the 21st Century has a secure future if we can confidently state its purpose. It is a role in support of education of course, but also, and perhaps nowhere more acutely than at Senate House, it is a role in collaboration with other cultural heritage organisations. Orwell shows us why sometimes we may need to fight. Borges weaves images of what we are fighting for.

Borges, in his miniature story staring Shakespeare called Everything and Nothing, describes how when Shakespeare meets God the poet says; ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’ In Borges’ last story, Shakespeare’s Memory, a man is given the entire mind of the poet. As it gradually overwhelms him he passes it on. Borges believed that the words of one man are the words of all men, and that the construct of the library is where they are to be found. In the library, we are all Shakespeare.

The purpose of research libraries in the 21st Century is simply to exist. Without them we are lessened.

Orwell and Borges each discovered that art is an essential force. Both writers believed that books contain truth. It is why books were being burned in Nazi Germany. It is why Orwell sought to defend them. It is why Borges believed the library to be a labyrinth. It is why libraries remain linked to dreams, to memory, to political freedom, to educational opportunity and to truth.

Thank you.

Christopher Pressler, Cambridge

The Swimming Pool Library









Reading this year’s Times Good University Guide I was very pleased to see the library regarded as the most high profile service offered at university. Each University featured in the TH Guide contains positive and negative vox pops by the President of its respective Student Union. Despite what we are constantly told by expert panels, students still place the library at the top of their assessment of a University’s facilities. A respectful note to Vice-Chancellors – swimming pools count for a lot but promote the library and students will flock to your campus.

There are of course as many different kinds of academic library as there are universities. The majority of these are now exceptionally well-designed, welcoming places for large numbers of undergraduates to work either alone or together in groups, and most are filled with leading-edge technology. The candle-lit uyndergraduate library of the 19th Century is gone. So too are the many 1970’s interiors, which was the previous great period of academic library development in Britain. Now, unless the library provides frappe mocha cappuccinos (why is coffee now this complex?), free wireless and vibrantly coloured soft furnishings you might as well not bother opening the doors.

One of the large ‘learning spaces,’ to which these libraries are often referred professionally, that I managed at Nottingham University even had its own dress code. This was let slip by the Student Union President to me in a meeting, and went along the lines of, ‘On Level 1 of the Library you have to have a certain look.’ The students themselves undid all that work we did to widen access to an elite university for students from less privileged backgrounds. I pass no comment.

Regardless of whether a student shops in Hollister or Primark, the library is regarded as easily the most essential building on campus outside the lecture theatre (and more so by some students). Incidentally, although I usually feel left behind in style terms by students, despite immense personal effort, there was one area in which students may remain a little behind the curve themselves. Students do not want eBooks.

It does not matter how many times the argument is made that in order to provide collaborative learning spaces, the physical book stock must give way to technology, students still want to use printed books. An e-licence can provide multiple accesses to a single copy. It can be downloaded anywhere. It can even be bought and used on the most essential piece of equipment a contemporary student owns, their iPhone. None of this alters the demand for print materials.

The considerable achievements of digitisation, particularly of rare materials have transformed most libraries’ ability to support research. Indeed, colleagues working at a senior research level rarely enter most libraries. There are of course exceptions, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Senate House Libraries, University of London. These and a few others retain research and historic collections beyond the reach of current technology. It could be observed that for once, unlike the pervasive use of social networking tools such as Facebook, lecturers are more advanced than students in their employment of technology when it comes to eBooks and digital collections. Or are they?

Reflecting on national strategies in the UK of about ten years ago, I remember a phrase then in common conference use named ‘the hybrid library.’ This phrase has since fallen from professional favour and been generally replaced by ‘the digital library.’ In some cases this has progressed to simply describing a library containing both digital and printed collections as, innovatively, ‘the library.’

Having proposed that those of us of a certain age are ahead of our younger students in at least one field of the web, let me burst, sadly that one remaining bubble. No matter how we rebrand our services as Learning Resource Centres, Collaborative Spaces, Learning Hubs, Knowledge Cafes, Information Commons, Digital Access Rooms or anything else, students still say to each other, ‘I’ll meet you in the library,’ even if it is via Twitter on an iPhone.

For most students in the modern university, as is confirmed again this year in The Times Good University Guide, the library remains not only the most important building on campus (perhaps knocked into a close second by the Union Bar), but also remains a library in the traditional sense.

Of course, the information revolution has not halted, in fact we too easily forget that we are only at its beginning. The use of eBooks will rise in academia just as it has in commercial bookselling. Demand for fast wireless access will increase. Mobile devices will kill-off desktop computing. Social networking will become more academically useful. But all of this will happen in a future where printed materials remain a definitive measure of the value and intellectual status of a University and its Library.

Cambridge University students know that one of the greatest aspects of their university is its 100+ libraries. Everyone knows this. To deny or ignore this fact, repeated again by students themselves in the TH Guide, is to be blind to a future where the library delivers 21st Century technology alongside its high-demand printed textbooks and its medieval manuscripts.

Sailing from Belfast to New York

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The role of libraries in the 21st Century is generally understated. Let me spend some time stating it. Previously on this blog I have proposed a number of assumptions:

-All libraries are not the same.

-Libraries are about educational opportunity, not just content.

-Collections remain important in both print and digital forms.

-Access to information is not equal across the world.

-Libraries enable discovery of the new, not only storage for the old.

-Libraries and archives exist in all areas of human endeavour.

The fact that these six facts are facts seems to have passed many people by. In universities, or at least shortsighted ones, the library is regarded as some kind of out-dated mode of travel. Why travel by ship to New York? In other organisations, such as government the archive is known to be important because it can be used to defend past actions, or used as a graveyard for files. Filing for most civil servants is much more secure than shredding. The library is a problem because it keeps expanding, but at least it has its purpose.

Universities and government agencies are the principal funders of libraries in the western world, indeed in most parts of the world. There are of course others, such as private foundations and trusts, but the majority of decisions, the principal sources of power concerning the future of teaching, research, public, prison and health libraries are on the Councils of Russell Group and Ivy League universities and in the corridors of governments.

One other aspect of libraries that is sometimes overlooked is that their management is still a professional vocation. People in all fields are generally held to account by others not qualified in the fields they fund. This is perfectly natural. As Hacker once said to Sir Humphrey, ‘Ministers are specifically chosen because they know nothing.’ The broad overview of government is on the whole, a good thing and should be protected. However, what may have broken from the leash recently is that such power does not by default result in wisdom.

It is not always the case that those holding the proverbial purse strings make the best decisions. Our acceptance of their need to watch the pennies has resulted in a belief that our particular professional view counts for little when our own funding withers.

Librarianship then, is a professional field. Being both a musician and a writer I have been struck time and again by the awe in which people who can create music are held, and the relative unimpressed view taken of writers. Everyone can write. Hardly anyone can create music. I am equally surprised by the commonly held, but rarely admitted position that librarianship is in some way less complex than for instance, original research. This allows no one who has not produced a single authored monograph to hold a view of the research process, and everyone who uses a library to become an expert in library management.

This is by no means a defensive position; it is far colder than that. It does not matter one way or the other that people have tiered views of writing and music, or of research and library management. All four will continue to exist anyway, and I would certainly rather run large libraries surrounded by vocal people who also care about them, than by willful disinterest. I have worked in both environments. The former can be a little frustrating.. The latter is dangerous to the future of information. It would be interesting to try an experiment; listen to professional librarians before cutting funding. We may be able to help. The voice of the senior public librarian in Britain in 2011 for example, is seen by Government as at best irrelevant, at worst a joke.

The library in the 21st Century is an entity that is manifest in many, many forms. One library’s future does not set a precedent for all the others. For instance, the Internet will kill some services but others will be replenished by it. Libraries and librarians are certainly engaged in the care of collections but they are also ‘doing things’ with that content. We are not gatekeepers. We are engaged in the educational and research processes at depth. We also purchase, listen and make long-term decisions. There is no such concept as out-dated. Almost all aspects of human culture are cyclical, and in any case sometimes the choice between flight and sail is helpful.

In disregarding some aspects of the past we also dismiss certain kinds of quality; space, time; comfort; reflection; serendipity; accuracy. The bracing mid-Atlantic deck in mid-thought can be more valuable than the jet-speed enclosure. The best libraries of course offer both, but each is needed.

The world is known to be divided into the information rich and the information poor. This will always be the case so long as it suits one party to keep it that way. As it always will, then libraries remain essential, not only in developing nations, but on the housing estates and deprived areas of western countries. Libraries are an easy target for cuts because the majority of people who use them are easy targets. They do not have a voice until they enter a library. Famously, libraries are not there for silence – they are there for disruption.

Libraries unsettle, they disturb the status quo because they provide the educational opportunity for people to have a voice. This is my background as a child in Belfast visiting his tiny public library and bringing its treasures home to read every week. Libraries are precisely why I have a voice. To enable lives to change – in school, college, university, hospital, prison, the workplace, the deprived city, the broken country, this is the purpose of libraries in the 21st Century. It always was. It always will be.

 

 

The British Library and UK Higher Education

Changing landscapes

The British Library operates many services that support the Higher Education sector. It now works in a financial climate that is likely to alter fundamentally within the next three to five years as teaching funding for the arts and humanities begins to affect students’ decisions to progress with postgraduate degrees.

The student population is traditionally split into undergraduate, taught postgraduate and research postgraduate communities. Beneath this there are trends in both discipline numbers and concentration of students. In the most recent (January 2010) HEPI\BL report it is observed for instance, that the highest proportion of taught postgraduates are in 1994 Group institutions and are studying business and education courses. Also, that the highest percentage of research postgraduates are in the Russell Group, studying STEM, (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) subjects.

The BL highlights its role in HE as one focused on arts and humanities fields, particularly as a named ‘Research Organisation’ status with the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council). It should be welcomed that this is seen to be important to the British Library, but qualified that this is a small area in terms of emerging researchers, and one that is likely to be under increasing pressure. The BL role in supporting tenured academic research is perhaps obvious, but could be more clearly promoted.

The role of libraries and information services confirm reports on student numbers and academic activity. For example, the largest research collections and richest scientific information environments are also in the Russell Group whilst the most comprehensive e-learning infrastructures can be found in universities, such as London and the Open University that are delivering the highest numbers of distance-learning courses. Senate House Libraries is delivering both large e-learning content and research collections.

It’s helpful to split the HE sector into areas of engagement where the BL might continue or improve on its partnership with universities and their libraries.

Areas of engagement

Undergraduates

· The physical access to the British Library by undergraduate students is welcomed, although it should be better regulated by collection need rather than additional reading space.

· The Hathi Trust in the US is digitising millions of books. Combined with Google this will transform access to standard texts. The BL needs to lead on a UKRR (United Kingdom Research Reserve) for monographs, or similar projects.

· Thematic guides to historic collections at undergraduate level are key to engaging students in considering further study.

· BL curators should seek to present collections and services directly in lecture theatres. Whilst this may seem daunting, it could at least be achieved in the major cities and online.

Taught postgraduates

· Further work should be considered on targeting support for business and corporate engagement, where large numbers of students need advice. The current Business and IP Centre is very valuable.

· The BL should be a presence within course materials where appropriate. A feasibility study could be performed with the OU.

· Technology should enable the Library to be perceived as accessible outside London. One method would be to market BL services inside university libraries and on their VLE’s (Virtual Learning Environments).

· Social networking tools are often the ‘peer review’ at this level and the BL could provide greater support to libraries in targeting discipline areas, such as English Studies to create ‘groups’ on known sites such as Facebook.

· Integrating BL services into universities is weak. BL Direct, where journal articles can be ordered needs far more promotion.

· Training days in nations and regions, as well as London would be welcomed.

Research postgraduates

· The EThos service needs further investment, both financially and in purpose. A link could be made to other PhD projects, such as DART-Europe and additionally to social networking to create a community around content.

· UKRR is one of the BL’s recent achievements in collaboration with universities. The opportunity to prove the value of HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England), investment here should not be lost – these are efficiencies despite high funding.

· The National Deposit Act, which allows published materials to be acquired by Oxford, Cambridge, Trinity College Dublin and the National Libraries should be reviewed. This is needed to fully understand its cost, not least in terms of storage and to establish its relationship to mass digitisation projects now and in the future.

· The research landscape has always included cross-sectoral work. This could be made much clearer, even in London. An agreed strategy for research collections in libraries, archives, museums and galleries is urgently required in the capital to respond to diminishing funding.

· The research provision roles of the BL, Cambridge, Oxford, LSE, UCL, KCL and Senate House, as the seven largest ‘Golden Triangle’ libraries should be clearly and innovatively restated.

Academic researchers

· BL could be more vocal on the Affordable Subscriptions to Periodicals (ASPI) initiative through RLUK (Research Libraries UK). The UK HE sector spends 10% of QR (research) funding on journal subscriptions, but this is an international problem and would benefit from National Library support.

· A process whereby the major research libraries could bring BL curators in early on research proposals at their universities would be timely.

· The School of Advanced Study, Senate House Libraries and the five current nationally funded libraries (Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, SOAS and Manchester) have roles beyond their institutions. A seminar towards greater coordination would be welcomed.

· Digitisation of materials is critical. There is little coordination on this.

· JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) is changing to a member subscription service. There is an opportunity for the BL to play a greater role in web developments.

Essential role

The British Library is already essential to the UK HE sector. Much of its work is recognised as innovative and transformative. However, despite the long history of partnerships between the BL and both libraries and researchers there is an equally long issue concerning the Library’s ability to move flexibly with the sector. The most recent example of this is the real difficulties in making EThos efficient and effective throughout the UK.

The most critical strategic question concerns the Library’s ability to adapt to a sector that will undergo a considerable period of change in 2012-2014. The undergraduate base will be more demanding, the postgraduate base will focus even more intensively on science in fewer institutions and the research postgraduate base will expect far richer content to be digital. Each major library will need to address all of these in a context of more commercial interest in the provision of information direct to readers, not least from Google.

The Russell Group libraries, the major libraries of the 1994 Group, the great heritage institutions and the NHS information services will all be asked to do more with less. The British Library is key to much of this new environment, not least as JISC and the European Commission shift both their business models and emphases to coordinated delivery of research content and away from investigative pilot projects.

I believe that although the BL needs to increase its presence across the UK, that the existing concentration of students, researchers and libraries in London offers a real opportunity to build new partnerships. Shared digital services and coordinated physical access policies will enable the BL to engage with HE and HE will help the BL remain essential to research in the ever-changing information age.

Theseus and the Minotaur










This week, Waterstone’s, the UK’s most significant chain of bookshops was purchased for £53million by the Russian tycoon Alexander Mamut. He has now installed the respected bookseller, James Daunt as the new Chief Executive. This is in the same week that the Minotaur, the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, was named as UK Bookseller of the Year. The former story is a lifeline to the sale of printed books in Britain, the latter is a disgrace.

James Daunt is the current boss of Daunt Books, a London chain of six bookshops, the first of which was opened in Edwardian Marylebone. He is now faced with a chain of over 300 shops in nearly every town in the UK, each of which is beaten down to selling wrapping paper, coffee and ‘celebrity’ biographies from people only half-way through their lives.

This does not distinguish it from other major Western chains, particularly in America. Battling the supermarkets (again – Sainsbury’s?) on one side and Amazon on the other has led to a complete loss of purpose at Waterstone’s. James Daunt, the Theseus of the hour, may be the person to rediscover this. Waterstone’s stakeholders seem to have spent too much time on the Internet and nowhere near enough time in real bookshops.

Entering a bookshop should guarantee a surprise. The reader must be delighted. The physical experience of the best bookshops can withstand the price-fixing of the supermarkets and the generalist appeal of the web. Bookshops and libraries are both part of the same industry and although I am not a bookseller, in a sense I am exactly that – a provider of books. The weakest libraries are those that replicate or surrender to the web. These are filled with sofas rather than shelves. The greatest libraries use what the web cannot offer – beautiful spaces to read, extensive collections of books the reader does not expect to find.

Yesterday, I walked into one of these bookshops. Topping and Company of Bath and Ely (I was in Ely), are precisely the kind of bookshops the previous Waterstone’s management forgot to visit. The shop itself is a labyrinth, which is always recommended when designing bookshops or libraries. Our minds act instinctively, as Theseus did when faced with the Minotaur, towards serendipity and interconnectivity within labyrinths.

Amazon tries to replicate this through the ‘People who bought this also bought this’ technology. It is dry, often laughable and frequently inaccurate. It also misses the point. People, whether in great libraries or in great bookshops do not want to be guided in this way. They want to find their own paths in the labyrinth. Theseus used thread given to him by Ariadne in order to escape. All bookshops and libraries need to do is publish their opening times.

Ely Cathedral sits amidst almost inconceivably large, flat fields. It is as if the 1000-year-old building has been transported to the American plains. The small city encircles the stunning cathedral and on one of these streets is Topping Bookshop. Inside its labyrinth each book is wrapped in cellophane. This shows care for the books, but also makes opening at home a special event. The depth in each section is full of surprise, including my own personal love of US editions, (perhaps we were in America?), and my purchase was the New York edition of Borges’ Non-fictions. A blog from another era, this book is its own labyrinth. Topping had both the UK and the US versions. I bought the more expensive US one because I love their shop.

Waterstone’s has a chance. If they release their managers in each store to make their own decisions and create their own labyrinths, then they will be using the one aspect of their business that cannot be replicated by the Internet: the freedom to wander the labyrinth.

The Survival of Antiquity









The process of re-engineering the life of the book continues apace. There appears to be a defining of the future as purely digital. It is assumed that as a process has begun, namely the transfer of print to digital books, then that process must have a conclusion. There is inevitability about the dominance of the screen. iPads are objects of desire, and ones we thought we didn’t even need, until we held one.

I believe that my once treasured DVD collection is now dead. Over the last few years it has moved from pride-of-place in the sitting room to being further and further away from where I actually watch films. Even the core of the collection, an (almost) complete set of Woody Allen’s films is now slumped at the top of the stairs gathering dust. I am not proud of this because in a sense it was not intentional. I didn’t even notice the frequency with which my decision-making was being influenced by both TV film libraries and more recently, by the web. My DVD collection is dead and I may as well throw it out.

Why has the same process not happened to my CD collection? There must be a variable in there about age, but I think this is overstated in the media. I know ‘the kids’ no longer buy singles to the same degree that we did, but they do buy physical albums, more than ever in fact. My CD collection is 20% pop music and 80% classical music. I can honestly say that I can remember where and why I bought almost every single one. For instance, to raise funds in order to buy the 1993 Pet Shop Boys album ‘Very’ I had to paint an artex ceiling in Belfast. All those details are important, they were trying times and that was a difficult ceiling. More recently, I went to the wonderful Heffers here in Cambridge and bought a Boulez recording of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. This fantastic release is genuinely heavy with extensive liner notes and photographs. It is already a valuable object.

And so to my books. I have carried these across the UK in the course of my life so far. They have been sworn at, when boxed and waiting at the bottom of flights of stairs. They have been on far too many Ikea bookshelves in the days before decent salaries. They have been in the backs of cars and the bellies of lorries. They have been found in more bookshops than I can possibly remember, or recommended to me by friends… or Amazon. A few have travelled with me all over Europe, to America and to China. One; Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ has been held at night like a bible, during times of difficulty. Another; Larkin’s ‘The Less Deceived’ has been read since I was at school, still having the power to transform an ordinary afternoon into something memorable.

Aby Warburg, the great German bibliophile said to his younger brother Max when they were both children, that he would give him his birthright to the family fortune if Max would agree to buy him all the books he wanted for the rest of his life. Max agreed and over the decades, Warburg created something remarkable. The University of London now cares for his library, but the original library building, from which Warburg fled the Nazis, was more than books. It was a comprehensive and unique view of life.

Built in a circle and with oval shelves, the books were classified purely on how Warburg believed they contributed to his core beliefs; that humans rediscover aspects of the past, of tradition for themselves in every age, and that libraries should be anti-linear in order to aid that discovery through serendipity. Defining characteristics of the age of Enlightenment and of the Renaissance for example, were provided by the reuse of Classical forms, structures and intellectual ideas. Warburg called this ‘the survival of antiquity.’ The circle of ideas.

Change is inevitable, indeed welcome but it must be observed and monitored as well as absorbed and enjoyed. As the world moves to ever more pervasive digital culture, we should remember that the physical still has meaning. As a librarian, my instinct is the same at home as it is at work. I accept that my DVD collection is of the past, but I respect the origins and remaining authority of my CD and book collections. Warburg continues to show us through his library and its remarkable, almost corporeal presence that the future is not defined by the digital alone. All libraries, like life are circular.

Code Making






A couple of weeks ago I saw a book in a bookshop. Not a remarkable coincidence, I know but this one was special. It was not born analogue.

Libraries are now concerned with storage of many types of media. Of course, we still care for and collect millions of printed books, and to a lesser degree journals. But we are also acquiring digital collections, datasets and surrogates that can only be accessed online. There are occasional attempts to take a ‘snapshot’ of the entire Internet by some national libraries as well. Most of what is on the web is referred to as ‘born digital.’

Additionally, many materials are being digitised. This transfer of analogue materials; printed books, television programmes, films, music recordings and art works, is creating vast new collections. Storing them is one problem. Searching through them is another. There is a web within the Web. This is sometimes referred to as semantic. Effectively, it is the equivalent of looking into a library and running your eyes across the shelves, then looking into the library catalogue. The catalogue is the semantic library.

Many attempts have been made to discover a way of cataloguing the Internet. By far the most successful to date has been Google’s much-vaunted ranking system. The specific technology behind this remains a corporate secret but it is certainly active, rather than static, as is the case with most catalogues. This means that automated web robots, or computer programmes that constantly roam the web sending back data to Google on word usage within websites and on access statistics. Library catalogues are created at some point by human intervention. Most records are fairly simple; author, title etc but for rare materials or historic items expert description is required. Either way, both Google and libraries are using a form of cataloguing. As the act of collecting, (another way of describing librarianship) moves further into the digital world, more of the semantic information will simply be termed metadata.

For many years, we have heard alarms concerning the future role of print in culture, society and education. I think we are now at a point of coalition. Television, radio, film, music, photography and many other previously analogue processes are now almost entirely digital. Most of these also had physical presences, as the devices that captured them required objects. Tapes, paper, CD’s, DVD’s, LP’s were all results of analogue processes. As an aside, these have always resulted in multi-media libraries. That term is not the monopoly of the Internet.

None of these, with the exception of photography are print-based forms though. Of those, the book seems the most robust. Journals and newspapers are already either in digital form, or made redundant by digital forms. This was the case anyway, but the dominance on the web of social media has surely finalised the process of change. Twitter is now more important than television news in its ability to spread the word. Facebook and Google have more power in their control of advertising space than any newspaper in the world.

The printed book, although now not alone as a form of secure information sharing, remains the most potent method for humans to communicate. Perhaps this is because the physical object still has force for us. Contacting a real person is still the principal reason for typing something into your computer. A work of art still moves us differently when it is seen, or can be touched. The Holy Grail is unlikely to be pure data – we would have to hold it.

For these reasons, the printed book will adapt to the digital world rather than be fundamentally altered by it. Authors still want to have created something. Publishers still want to design something. Readers still want to hold something.

All printed books, even that wilting collection of paperbacks on your shelves, can be called codices. The word ‘codex’ comes from the Latin ‘caudex,’ meaning block of wood. When collected with quires; either paper or vellum stitched and folded into pages and bound between covers, a book is created. In this sense, the act of collecting applies not just to libraries but also to books themselves. Every book is a micro-library.

Initially, the codex was in competition with scrolls. It was quickly seen to be better. A scroll is sequential access. A codex is random access. So the codex and scroll were the precursors of much of the debate between print and digital. The difference is that although the Internet may have comprehensiveness as a main characteristic, the book has beauty.

So, the book I saw in the bookshop started me thinking because it was bucking a trend. Digitisation is the single most important aspect to the current development of human knowledge. The growth of the web and the transfer of analogue to digital will enable progress beyond anything we have yet seen. But the book in the bookshop was a stunningly produced printed blog.

The entire text is written by a famous artist. I’ll let you use the semantic web to find it. What he has produced is a process currently without a term. It is the opposite of digitisation and a fascinating glimpse into the future of the book. Not only will the printed media always be first choice for many authors and readers, but it will also find a new role. The object means more than the byte.

The process of turning, for instance a blog into a codex might be called ‘to codify.’ A new definition for this verb, which currently can mean to arrange in a systematic manner. Codification means to reduce to a code. The blog, pulled from the active web and redesigned to reflect and mark one person’s world is this reduction.

This process might just catch on – the act of collecting, the art of bookmaking.

Ultimate Review of Books?









This is new version of some earlier thoughts submitted to the London Review of Books. Canning Circus is beginning to act as my own personal repository of work, as well as somewhere for other topics, which I find interesting as it was not as I originally intended in 2008 when I started. The web is an unpredictable partner.


It is often argued that the book has been the major source of recorded knowledge for millennia but there are now questions over its future as a physical object. For a number of years the search giant, Google has been digitising books. Of the ten million or so completed, around two million are in the public domain and six million are embargoed by copyright. This article suggests how the converged web and physical library act as an essential part of the future of the book.

In addressing the future of all books, I deliberately exclude historic and special collections in the world’s great research libraries when considering contemporary themes of mass digitisation. That is a closely aligned but very different discussion. Most positively, such rare collections will offer all research libraries a clear future as digital surrogates of exceptional materials only increase demand to view the original. Conversely, the library profession itself could be diverted into lengthy discussions on these materials and entirely miss an opportunity to influence a major development on the web. Google would be laughing all the way to whichever bank it chooses.

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Life of books

The ‘book’ is at the centre of a number of relationships that bring it to life and sustain it. This is the case whether as a physical object or as an electronic text.

Books exist in four key environments:

1. Education – schools, colleges, universities

2. Public life – public libraries, hospitals, prisons, national institutions

3. Workplace – government, business, law

4. Market – bookshops, Internet, auction houses, homes

In the four environments above only the last one, the commercial market operates without libraries as a necessary part. Even there, libraries are present as purchasers but they are not essential. The relation between libraries and books is still the most important in the print and digital form’s life. In numbers 1 – 3 the acquisition rate for books is always highest in the library sector.

In academia, the library fulfills a clear role in research and in teaching. Large libraries are still the busiest buildings on most campuses. Students do not talk of ‘the death of the book,’ but more commonly that there aren’t enough of them to go around. In universities there is a triangle formed by researchers and students, publishers and librarians that is interdependent.

In the public life of most countries, the library is a major part of the accessibility and delivery of books and information between the population, authors and publishers. For governments, libraries play a key role in determining their ability to achieve equality and opportunity.

The complex world of work, from legal firms, to government departments, to the global span of the UN and UNESCO depend on access to recorded material. They are also in many cases, positively using the social power of libraries to deliver education and transform communities.

In a world on the brink of a potential knowledge monopoly by Google, libraries and their books in print and digital form remain a transformative force, although their role in delivering access to information is changing.

*

New research environments

Libraries are faced now with demands to prove purpose. This is acute in the public library sector, with the exception of the world’s largest public libraries. Even there, belts are being tightened. In academic research libraries the dual demands of teaching and research are effecting fundamental change on services. Students expect greater technology-led services and researchers demand content in print or digital media. At the same time, the commercial sector is intervening in both roles of the library more critically than ever before. This article will focus on the academic library sector and the processes associated with communicating research.

In addition to defining the role of library services at all, there are further complexities around the types of content being delivered. The higher education sector is still trying to agree a satisfactory model for the production and long-term accessibility of journal articles. This specific issue has been taken off-course by libraries’ spending years, and £\$\€millions on promoting open access repositories for research articles without the essential focus on the academics providing the original content. This technical infrastructure, whilst comparatively successful in delivering a standard architecture has not changed the research communications landscape as intended. Libraries are now forced back into negotiations with journal publishers over inflation increases, and into the same discussions that occurred ten years ago. We have been wasting our time.

While the library sector has been engaged in small-scale pilot projects and proof-of-concept computing, the web has altered without us. Google did not exist when funding for repositories first started. It has now overwhelmed them.

In academia, and despite the essential nature of databases and other information media the two dominant forms of communication remain journals and books. Both are now online and on the shelf, but either are still the principal ways for researchers to communicate with their students, the wider public and each other. If we have missed an opportunity to exploit technology to provide a different business model for e-journals, are libraries now in danger of repeating the mistake with books?

*

No library is an island

Not even the British Library holds ‘everything.’ The global system of inter-library loans has meant that for the majority of the twentieth-century, the world’s printed knowledge has been shared by its users through their libraries and now, with the transfer of so much of that knowledge on the Internet, we operate in an increasingly collaborative information environment. Even the loneliest of lone scholars performs his or her research in terms of arguments, and by default, you need contact with other people in order to have arguments. So, our researchers and students need the ideas of others in order to prepare and present their own. In these research practices we find our real vocation as providers of books: an intellectual engagement with readers.

By example, in my own services, the role that is played by the libraries of the University of London is important because of the national position held by, and the unique research depth of our collections. I feel the ammunition in the guns so frequently turned on humanities libraries in particular has been quite fundamental in nature. The questions have perhaps been derived from a more profound enquiry into the real purpose of research and the need for teaching in the arts and humanities.

Humanities libraries have been caught in the crossfire of this inquest. It doesn’t help that large, unique printed collections are considered expensive to maintain. I would suggest however, that this is more about cost than value or worth. They are valuable when compared with the cost of maintaining comparative research environments in science. The libraries are labs, but also essential archives of our shared past.

In this way, the libraries of major research universities are in precisely the same position as the research fields they support. My own view is that although science may keep us alive, it is the humanities that make it worth being alive in the first place. Libraries that support art history, music, literature, philosophy, sociology, psychology, languages, economics, law, film, politics, religion, geographies, history – our histories, indeed the ‘humanities,’ are supporting humanity itself. Our libraries are collecting and making available a shared record of human action. Our researchers are discovering and making new that record. The libraries and researchers that shape the major collections are in a symbiotic relationship.

So let us turn to the future. If no library is an island then what will be shared by researchers and students as the world’s recorded knowledge becomes increasingly available online?

There can be few other professions which have had the death knoll struck for them quite so many times as librarians. I have worked for my entire career to date with phrases such as ‘the end of the book,’ or ‘the death of libraries,’ ringing in my ears. For many, these phrases have not been the most inspiring, the most uplifting ways to begin our working day in the library. But we’re still here. Libraries and librarians have adapted, as we have so many times during the four thousand or so years of recorded human knowledge. The Internet is only the latest in a long line of additions to what we do. The earliest Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian librarians, managing collections of clay tablets, adapted I’m sure to the papyrus-driven technology of the Egyptians. As knowledge became more widely shared through its transfer in languages other than Latin, and the great European cathedral libraries with their precious books chained to the walls had to compete with an age of mass-printing, librarians also changed.

Libraries have never been the only source of information for people. Not even the world’s largest libraries are universal. Today, all libraries are adapting to the power of the web, embracing it rather than ignoring it. Generally, the new has a habit of enhancing, rather than destroying the old. In China, there is a company that is allowed to print over one million bibles every month. The extraordinary thing is not that they are printing bibles – although that is in itself perhaps surprising – but that they are still printing books. Amazon now sells more eBooks than printed books but more printed books than ever in our history are being published every year. The printed book will be a format of the future alongside digital editions, for most people, and in many academic disciplines. The future for the world’s libraries is secure as long as we see ourselves as part of change, rather than its victim.

What has so often been perceived as weakness, namely the attempt to store and use vast quantities of printed arts and humanities knowledge, is in fact a defining strength. Our libraries in London, and by default our researchers are at the centre of the greatest concentration of humanities knowledge anywhere in the world. The galleries, museums, societies, universities, libraries and bookshops in the centre of London are a remarkable, unique and shared resource.

*

Readers not stakeholders

It is recognised that libraries have been at the forefront of working to digitise very large numbers of books and to make them available on the web. In the US, the Hathi Trust, a consortium of 52 research libraries has digitised around eight million volumes. Approximately two million of these are in the public domain. The Trust offers something beyond Google: it is primarily a library rather than a commercial company. This difference means that reader access, not stakeholder profit is the purpose of the service. It also means that digital preservation is at the top of the agenda, not a rather fragile footnote.

Hathi is still a club and consequently there are member benefits. If a reader is not associated with any of the collaborating universities, he or she will only be able to access certain materials. It is likely that there is considerable duplication with Google’s service here as an out of copyright, or orphan (where the rights holder cannot be found) book will eventually be available on the web anyway. However, it seems to me that the potential of Hathi is considerable.

If we leap to an idealised future where all books in let’s say, the world’s greatest libraries are available free on the web, what would we have created? For the sake of argument, when I say ‘books’ in this context I mean published bound printed volumes. A ‘book’ comes in many forms in libraries. These libraries are the national libraries of the USA, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Russia and China. It would be wise to add Harvard. In the UK, Oxford, Cambridge and London holdings need to be checked against the British Library and similarly in the great university libraries of the other countries.

If all these libraries digitised their entire book collections, or even only those legally open, and made them freely available on the web the dominance of Google would be genuinely challenged or perhaps enhanced, depending on the view taken of handing over responsibility for global intellectual content to a private company. The obstacles are familiar: money and copyright. Google does not have a problem with the former and will likely buy its way out of the latter. For libraries though, both remain an issue, without creativity and ambition.

There is enough money in the public purse to achieve a global digital library. Hathi has already proved that working together delivers tangible results. As is always the case when cost seems prohibitive we have to ask ourselves what is the cost of not acting? This is certainly a driving principle behind the burgeoning idea in the US of a Digital Public Library of America, a potentially vast collection to rival Google but free for public use. For large research libraries, the risk of the Google Books strategy is plain – libraries will lose the ability to manage the delivery of books to readers.

Google intends such management to continue, but on its own terms. Libraries would not be an important voice in the web’s development, we could not guarantee in perpetuity of access and perhaps most crucially, we would be faced with negotiating access through subscriptions. In short, we would have created for books precisely the same situation we now struggle against concerning journals. All that would have changed from a library perspective is that we would be dealing with two industries (Google content and journal publishers), rather than one.

The issue of copyright remains difficult although Google’s ‘coach and horses’ approach to the courts may change everything. In a world altered by the information age it is worth reflecting on the validity of copyright law written for an earlier, perhaps simpler, certainly more controlled research environment. New licenses such as Creative Commons may be a glimpse into the future but if so, legal action needs to be quick and comprehensive relating to books. Neither characteristic is commonly associated with copyright law. Google Books may rewrite the rules more rapidly.

The Hathi Trust as it stands now accounts for around seventy-five percent of all the content in Google Books. We are at a decisive point in library history. It is time to create the global digital library before it is brought into being by an entity without guaranteed longevity or education as its core principles. Owing, more by luck than judgment, to the otherwise limited repository environment we also, for a short time still possess much of the infrastructure needed to build the next great library open to all.

The world’s research libraries have much to gain and a great deal to lose. Whichever happens, the impact will touch every person who ever bought, borrowed, read or wrote a book.

Times Higher Education – Research Access









I wanted to post a copy of an interview I did with the Times Higher Education Supplement last week on the blog. The text is by Paul Jump at the THES and it raises some interesting angles on the future of institutional repositories, the international infrastructure in place for the deposit of open access articles outside of library journal subscriptions:

The recent launch of several high-profile open-access journals by commercial publishers including Nature Publishing Group and SAGE elicited cheers from veterans of the open-access movement.

Here, they thought, was evidence that their ideal of making research freely available online, as expressed in 2002′s landmark Budapest Open Access Initiative document, was finally gaining mainstream traction.

But according to Christopher Pressler, director of research library services at the University of London, the enthusiasm for “gold” (journal-based) open access is relatively recent and amounts to a “fundamental compromise” necessitated by the open-access movement’s failure to plan for the financial sustainability and academic appeal of “green” open access, which is built around self-archiving papers in institutional repositories.

He contended that librarians’ original goal in pushing for open access was to take academic publishing away from the commercial enterprises they perceived to be making unjustifiably large profits from charging universities for access to their own research.

Mr Pressler told Times Higher Education that the rise of gold open access could lead to an even greater drain on university budgets due to some publishers’ alleged practice of “double dipping”: charging authors for open-access options without reducing subscription prices proportionately.

Institutional repositories have been established in their hundreds by institutions worldwide, including around 150 in the UK, but by common consent have attracted disappointingly little content.

“Setting up repositories was one of the major strategic ambitions in the past 10 years, but we have to face the fact that they have not transformed the research landscape in the way we had hoped,” Mr Pressler said.

But not everyone is ready to write them off. Neil Jacobs, acting programme director for digital infrastructure at Jisc, the UK higher education IT consortium, pointed to considerable activity around some repositories. The University of Glasgow facility, for example, records 20,000 downloads every month.

He said the growth of repositories’ contents could be boosted by projects to automate the deposit of papers into repositories after the specified embargo period – typically six months – has passed.

Other defenders point to repositories’ suitability for hosting non-traditional academic outputs such as videos and datasets, and for helping universities to showcase their research and prepare for research assessment programmes.

No quality control, publishers warn

Michael Mabe, chief executive of the International Association of Scientific, Medical and Technical Publishers and a visiting professor in information science at University College London, said that publishers were increasingly uncomfortable with the threat posed by repositories.

He noted that even cutting-edge science papers see only half of their total downloads within six months, meaning that publishers who allow papers to enter a repository after that period are giving away large numbers of downloads.

Professor Mabe also feared that once repositories contained a significant volume of material, libraries might no longer feel the need to subscribe to journals at all, leading to their demise.

This would be disastrous, he argued, because repositories are essentially “electronic buckets” with no quality control. He also expressed doubts that the academy would be able to successfully introduce peer review to such repositories, partly because it would be difficult to attract reviewers who had no “brand allegiance” to the repositories.

Mr Pressler agreed that repositories in their current form are no substitute for high-impact journals, as association with such journals – as an author or editor – conferred considerable professional benefits.

He said the open-access movement had been misguided to push for institution-based repositories when academic communities were built around disciplines. Instead, he argued, advocates should have tried much earlier to convert research funders to the open-access cause and ask them to organise funding and peer review for repositories in their subject areas.

But Mr Pressler argued that it was not too late to recast the existing infrastructure in the form of international subject repositories or e-journals that would replicate everything that existing journals did.

Cameron Neylon, an academic editor at peer-reviewed open-access journal PLoS ONE, agreed that getting the most out of repositories would involve thinking of them as a mechanism for publishing as well as archiving. But he said that enthusiasts were held back by their “terror” of a publishers’ backlash.

Professor Mabe pointed to the history of public sector IT projects running over time and over budget and accused librarians of employing “voodoo economics” to demonstrate repositories’ cost effectiveness.

But Mr Pressler said he was very surprised that it had not occurred to cash-strapped governments and funders that huge savings could be made by taking publishers’ profit margins out of university budgets.

He argued that however loudly academics and publishers might protest, it could be easily achieved with enough political will. “If the combined journal invoices of the Russell Group were redirected to create a properly governed, peer-reviewed open-access landscape, it could be achieved collaboratively,” he said.

To Google or Not to Google








The search giant, Google has strategically been digitising books for a number of years now. Of the ten million or so completed, around two million are in the public domain and six million are embargoed by copyright.

This article deliberately excludes historic and special collections in considering contemporary themes in mass digitisation. That is a closely aligned but very different discussion. Most positively, those collections will offer all research libraries a clear future as digital surrogates of rare materials only increase demand to view the original. That is different from standard texts. Conversely, the library profession could be diverted into lengthy, fascinating discussions on these wonderful materials and entirely miss an opportunity to influence a major development on the web. Google would be laughing all the way to whichever bank it chooses.

Libraries are faced now with demands to prove purpose. This is acute in the public library sector, with the exception of the world’s largest public libraries. Even there, belts are being tightened. In academic research libraries the dual demands of teaching and research are effecting fundamental change on services. Students expect greater technology-led services and researchers demand content in print or digital media. At the same time, the commercial sector is intervening in both roles of the library more critically than ever before. This article will focus on the academic library sector and the processes associated with communicating research.

In addition to defining our role as library services at all, there are further complexities around the types of content we need to deliver. The higher education sector is still trying to agree a satisfactory model for the production and long-term accessibility of journal articles. This specific issue has been taken off-course by libraries’ spending years, and £\$\€millions on promoting open access repositories without the required focus on the academics providing the initial content. This technical infrastructure, whilst comparatively successful in delivering a standard architecture has not changed the research communications landscape as intended. We are now forced back into negotiations with journal publishers over inflation increases, and into the same discussions that occurred ten years ago. We have, I am sorry to say, been wasting our time.

While the library sector has been engaged in small-scale pilot projects and proof-of-concept computing, the web has altered without us. Google did not exist when funding for repositories first started. It has now overwhelmed them.

In academia, and despite the essential nature of databases and other information media the two dominant forms of communication remain journals and books. Both are now online and on the shelf, but they are still the principal ways for researchers to communicate with their students, the wider public and each other. If we have missed an opportunity to exploit the technology of e-journals to provide a different business model, surely we are not going to do exactly the same thing with books?

It is recognised that libraries have been at the forefront of working to digitise very large numbers of books and to make them available on the web. In the US, the Hathi Trust, a consortium of 52 research libraries has digitised around eight million volumes. Approximately two million of these are in the public domain. The Trust offers something beyond Google: it is primarily a library rather than a commercial company. This difference means that reader access, not stakeholder profit is the purpose of the service. It also means that digital preservation is at the top of the agenda, not a rather fragile footnote.

Hathi is still a club and consequently there are member benefits. If a reader is not associated with any of the collaborating universities, he or she will only be able to access certain materials. It is likely that there is considerable duplication with Google’s service here as an out of copyright, or orphan (where the rights holder cannot be found) book will eventually be available on the web anyway. However, it seems to me that the potential of Hathi is considerable.

If we leap to an idealised future where all books in let’s say, the world’s greatest libraries are available free on the web, what would we have created? For the sake of argument, when I say ‘books’ in this context I mean published bound printed volumes. A ‘book’ comes in many forms in libraries. These libraries are the national libraries of the USA, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Russia and China. It would be wise to add Harvard. In the UK, Oxford, Cambridge and London holdings need to be checked against the British Library and similarly in the great university libraries of the other countries.

If all these libraries digitised their entire book collections, or even only those legally open, and made them freely available on the web the dominance of Google would be genuinely challenged or perhaps enhanced, depending on the view taken of handing over responsibility for global intellectual content to a private company. The obstacles are familiar: money and copyright. Google does not have a problem with the former and will likely buy its way out of the latter. For libraries though, both remain an issue, without creativity and ambition.

There is enough money in the public purse to achieve a global digital library. Hathi has already proved that working together delivers tangible results. As is always the case when cost seems prohibitive we have to ask ourselves what is the cost of not acting? This is certainly a driving principle behind the burgeoning idea in the US of a Digital Public Library of America, a potentially vast collection to rival Google but free for public use. For large research libraries, the answer to the Google strategy question is simple – libraries will lose the ability to manage the delivery of books to readers.

Google intends such management to continue, but on its own terms. Libraries would not be an important voice in the web’s development, we could not guarantee in perpetuity of access and perhaps most crucially, we would be faced with negotiating access through subscriptions. In short, we would have created for books precisely the same situation we now struggle against concerning journals. All that would have changed from a library perspective is that we would be dealing with two industries (Google content and journal publishers), rather than one.

The issue of copyright remains difficult although Google’s ‘coach and horses’ approach to the courts may change everything. In a world transformed by the information age it is worth reflecting on the validity of copyright law written for an earlier, perhaps simpler, certainly more controlled research environment. New licenses such as Creative Commons may be a glimpse into the future but if so, legal action needs to be quick and comprehensive relating to books. Neither characteristic is commonly associated with copyright law. Google Books may alter the landscape more rapidly.

The Hathi Trust as it stands now accounts for around seventy-five percent of all the content in Google Books. We are at a decisive point in library history. It is time to create the global digital library before it is brought into being by an entity without guaranteed longevity or education as its core principles. Owing, more by luck than judgment, to the otherwise limited repository environment we also, for a short time still possess much of the infrastructure needed to build the next great library open to all.

The world’s research libraries have much to gain and a great deal to lose. Whichever happens, the impact will touch every person who ever bought, borrowed, read or wrote a book.