What might we not know?

Much has been achieved in the attempt to bring the world’s manuscript and incunabula collections online. Millions of dollars have already been spent on digitisation projects and related activity, and for the most part, with considerable positive impact on public access, scholarship and research.

One of the earliest major initiatives was ‘Project Gutenberg’ in the US, which has continued to grow, releasing out of copyright, mainly canonical literature freely onto the web. Perhaps ironically, named for Gutenberg, not just the first movable type publisher but also a designer in his own time with a precursory ethos akin to William Morris, the digital service is itself very poorly designed. In the early days it was not possible to manipulate HTML much beyond the excitement of text on screen. In those days a spinning @ sign was the web at its most scintillating. Now though, the Internet has seeped into environments beyond <simply placing text online. /> We expect to interact with it on multiple devices anywhere, from 3” touchscreens to 60” flatscreens. We have become used to broadband speeds experienced on our sofas inconceivable to the military in the 1970’s and 1980’s. We play, we learn, we travel virtually.

There is not a great deal of point in predicting the future, as we never seem to remember that what we are experiencing at almost any given moment was itself rarely predicted. The only secure conjecture might be that the entity that is the wireless Internet is likely, in the future to be viewed on both smaller and larger screens at ever increasing speed and at greater levels of pervasiveness in terms of both society and individual psychology. Additionally, it might be possible to say that less and less data will be held personally. The Apple iCloud is a glimpse of how our devices are likely to use cloud computing. This is not a new concept of course. Corporations have used this kind of sharing technology for some years. iCloud though, is the first to propose using it for shopping lists.

So much has been accomplished. Two of the most important step changes in commercial computing are actually based on successful marketing and sales rather than principally on hard programming. The financial success of Microsoft Windows and Apple’s iPod, two very different business icons have each enabled their parent companies at key points in the development of the web to reinvest very considerable amounts of money in further research and development. In this sense, everyone who bought Windows in the 1990’s and every person who owns an iPod, iPhone or iPad is an active player in the information revolution, not merely a passive consumer. Our age is truly, as was the case with the industrial revolution, a collective effort.

Having placed us in our current (which is not a word with much long-term currency), context we should think of the inevitable. Computing will continue to transform our daily, personal and professional lives. This blog is concerned with digitisation and academic/commercial partnerships in the digital humanities. Virtual made physical made virtual: the circle of modern life.

Following the success of Gutenberg, the second major leap in the field of digital texts and manuscripts is one that now, I would argue, represents something of a developmental plateau. It is has been the state of the art for many years. ‘Turning the Pages’ is now in use across universities, archives and museums around the world. The British Library was amongst the first to explore fully the possibilities of multi-layered digitisation to create movable images. The ability to, albeit awkwardly recast the experience of interacting with a codex (more commonly known as ‘reading a book’), has proved very fashionable with both funding agencies and scholars. Digital manuscripts are now more accessible and more visible online. Turning the Pages and its comparable technologies have only one paradox – we appear to have reached the last page and no one seems to know where to turn next.

In addressing problems of technology in research it is considered good practice to ask this question; what problem are we trying to solve? This can be a valid approach of course, but I do not think it is necessarily sufficient for a discussion led by design questions. To be blunt, this is the most pedantic, dry and functionalist way to approach the future. To view the future of digital research simply as a process of solving problems would be analogous to addressing climate change by debating the colour classification of wheelie bins.

In any case, in the field of digital manuscripts, ‘the problem’ has in effect already been solved. To begin with there was nothing wrong with the original objects. It has yet proved impossible to produce digital surrogates of the physical materials that also reproduce their sheer power and authority. I have seen autograph manuscripts of Virginia Woolf’s novels in both digital form and as the original; long, angled spider-drawn handwriting on rough yellowed paper, smelling of faded gardens, with aggressive crossings-out indenting the next page. These are objects of immense and indiscernible human weight. Holding a Woolf manuscript is to hold death and life at the same time.

As an aside, the most powerful physical object I have ever held followed a long journey deep underground beneath The British Library in London. My colleague drew from the shelf a large box, thin but rising past my waist from the floor. She lifted it carefully onto a table and opened it. Pulling back the acid free paper she lifted the volume out. It was a music manuscript. As she raised the front cover and pulled it open I could see, quite clearly, neat rows of staves. There were exactly forty of them dropping from the top of the pages to the bottom. The piece began with only one voice but quickly grew more complex. As we turned the sheets. I saw that this was the Forty Part Motet by Thomas Tallis, the great Elizabethan composer. My colleague said, ‘I want you to hold it before I tell you something.’ I took the item in my white-gloved hands and waited. She told me that in the original performance the forty singers surrounded Elizabeth I in a circle in order for her to experience the full splendour of Tallis’ masterpiece. ‘This,’ said my colleague, ‘is the copy that the Queen was holding during that performance.’ The circle of Elizabethan life.

How do we respond, when designing digital environments, in order to come close to replicating what it means to researchers, perhaps even emotionally as human beings, to be near objects with such power? What might we be able to design which moves beyond increased access by the digital surrogate or the frankly, second-rate experiences offered by touchscreen versions? What problem are we trying to solve, is not a question inspirational enough to meet the demands of researchers wishing to interact with, discover new ideas within and perhaps even be moved by historical materials.

A more engaging question might be – what might we not yet know? As this question is in essence unanswerable it seems to me to be a good place to start when considering how technology might intervene between a researcher and their object. Research in the humanities is concerned with unearthing. As in archaeology, our role in designing research environments is more than providing the appropriate tools, it is also about presenting an environment rich enough to offer up discoveries in the first place. Bare earth is useless, as are small libraries and underfunded digital projects.

There have been attempts at designing what amounts to virtual reality in the fields of cultural heritage and historic collections. Most recently, the bespoke but relatively flexible technology offered by Second Life allowed for a number of interesting bodies of work. In recent years, at King’s College London, a team of researchers have very successfully replicated some of the architecture of antiquity by rebuilding Roman theatres in considerable detail using innovative techniques in humanities computing. Some of these environments could only now exist in virtual worlds. In Rome only the bare skeletons of the stones lay forever whitening under unrelenting sun. In Second Life they are given new life and perhaps for the researcher a richer one, as it is possible to go inside the structure of ancient buildings in a way impossible previously. In other academic disciplines too the use of computing has at worst been intriguing, at best transformative in terms of opening new paths of investigation, or in some cases whole new sub-disciplines.

There have been many attempts over the last ten to fifteen years by the humanities research community and indeed by libraries, to engage with new communities and disciplines. Most consistently, there has been an active dialogue between librarians and archivists, often supported by academics working across many fields of enquiry. This has produced real content and it has helped to engage the public too in research materials and processes. The popular success of genealogical investigation on television is as much down to the availability of collections on the web as anything else.

Although there has been progress in the research community searching beyond itself for ideas and partnerships there has yet to be a meaningful engagement between academia and commerce in the field of digital humanities research.

In 2007 the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, (EPSRC) funded a potentially important network that was intended to develop links between academic computing and the games industry through work being carried out in Artificial Intelligence. Based at Imperial College London, the initial network of 24 academics and six gaming companies were certainly asking interesting questions. Unfortunately, this was a project conceived in academia rather than the industry. Its ambitions were, if I might be so bold, typically low and predictable. The primary outcome was to be a series of events bringing interested parties together. This was achieved but little else appears to have emerged. From the three years of funded work, only one principal research paper is currently available on the project website, published in 2007. One problem might be that this was the only nationally funded project of its kind between the gaming industry and computing academics in the UK during that period. The project was intended to bring together UK Higher Education, with its 6 million students and 300,000 academics and the commercial research and development departments. The project was awarded around £83k to engage with an industry worth, according to Reuters in 2011, and estimated $65 billion worldwide.

Reading through the project aims in relation to an industry second only in financial success to film in the creative arts, (and quickly catching it), gives the impression that not only was the ambition not matched by the funding, but that also there may have been a lack of real purpose to the discussion. It is not enough to simply nod sagely and agree that it might be important for universities to work with industry. There must be a reason to do so.

Such a reason is to be found not by asking the question, what problem are we trying to solve, but rather the question, what might we not know?

In 2007 the next phase of the information revolution was ushered in by the release of the first iPhone. This device brought touchscreen technology into daily life and should be recognised for doing so, despite other smaller scale initiatives. It was a leap beyond the iPod because it was pointing towards human connectivity via handheld devices, not purely the act of building personal collections. There will always be other companies involved in the unstoppable tide of product and service development but Apple are currently the most important and focused of the large corporations. A strategic lead towards personal devices and away from desktops, to communal collecting on iTunes and presumably shared handheld digital lives through the successors to iPad and iCloud are all notable not purely because of their invention, but also because of their scale. Where Apple have led most consumers and other companies have been keen to follow.

Where we are now is not the only place we can be. We have a unique ability to assess the past and build the future.

When a researcher looks at the original of, for instance, an illuminated manuscript, what are they looking for? The medieval age seems almost unbounded in its continued ability to surprise us. Presently, a researcher can search for the physical location of such a codex, visit it for an agreed and invigilated period of time, perhaps even touch it. As with the Woolf materials this experience is not currently possible to exceed through the use of computing. There is no problem to solve. The physical interaction is simply as good as it gets. However, if we ask what might we not know about this manuscript, we open up further research questions that might genuinely be transformed by technology.

An autograph in the professional world of special collections is a manuscript in the hand of the author, as in the case of Woolf’s novels or Tallis’ Motet. A holograph is an item in the hand of a person, such as a letter, or in extreme cases, death warrants, plots, adulterous notes and confessions – libraries are not generally records of happiness.

To engage new research questions we should begin to work on these kinds of documents with a significant industry, or at least through some of its technology in creative ways, beyond the textual replication of Project Gutenberg and even the more interactive surrogates of Turning the Pages. It should be possible to coordinate, through the large educational consortia available to us, initial discussions with commercial technology companies. We live in an age defined by information, perhaps even more so than science and yet it is science, technology, engineering and medicine disciplines that have dominated the interaction between commerce and academia.

The creative industries are net contributors to national GDPs in most European countries, North America and Japan. The same is the case for the pharmaceutical industries, yet it is those who have close working relationships with universities and academic researchers. Product and service development in the digital arts and humanities have consistently failed to attract inward investment from related industries for many years, despite being the principal training grounds for most of that industry’s workforce and possessing enormous potential as research bases for blue-sky technologies.

The past is a place of riches. We find ourselves, or at least versions of one another there. Museums are microscopes onto the activities of the lost. Libraries contain what they thought.

A holograph redefines the phrase ‘ghost written.’ Holographs are all that is left of most of us. The public interest in the supernatural has always fascinated me. Its nondisprovability provides the natural gathering place for a fundamentally agnostic society unable to fully disbelieve in God. The risk is too great for most. Regardless of belief systems, the combined profits of all those pseudo-documentaries shot by infra-red cameras in cellars and rural staircases could easily support the investigation of the living dead – those holographic materials held in libraries.

The most dynamic technology change now occurring across film, computing and television is the development of 3D. High Definition has for the most part arrived and analogue is dripping away. The 3D experience is set to filter down to lower-priced hardware over the next couple of years and research and development is advancing towards being able to trick the eye without the addition of glasses. The gaming industry too is a major player in the development of human-computer interaction.

If you lift a Woolf autograph up the indentions of a desperate pen can clearly be seen through the paper. Holding the Tallis manuscript at eye level it is possible to follow the notation in exact strikes of chords. I once watched a conservator raise red paint from a medieval illuminated manuscript with a knife so small it could only be performed under magnification. Beneath the paint he found unknown gilt and a reworked shape. It showed a 14th Century error and provided a 21st Century new understanding.

Project Gutenberg and Turning the Pages were important steps but if we ask what might we not know, then discoveries of our past could be made using technology such as 3D imaging. In order to make progress when designing research environments it is essential to think the unthinkable.  If we need hologram versions of holographic materials we will also need to create the partnerships between academia and the commercial companies capable of funding such work. These partnerships are essential in any case to a vibrant academic community. Science has already proved that theory.

We play, we learn, we travel virtually. We meet, we share, and we design in reality.

SHLS Digital Profile

I think the most overused word in our professional context is the word ‘digital.’ Our Associate Director for Digital Environments, Joe Honywill and myself recently held a daylong meeting to determine what the word digital might mean for the library. Just because a word is overused does not mean that it shouldn’t be reused.

Senate House Libraries is a critical mass organisation. In other words, we hold massive amounts of content. The spine of the library will remain its four million printed books and twelve million historic collections, not least because we are acquiring almost thirty thousand books per year. The technology change around these objects still concerns them, in terms of services, delivery and interaction. Technology in libraries is intended for a purpose but often appears little more than an after-thought. Many library websites do no more than reflect the physical organisation and its activities. Equally, many digital environments containing surrogate images of collections are merely an electronic version of the object.

Lastly, even where libraries have sustained good websites and enlightening online exhibitions they rarely draw on thinking and practice from beyond academia.

In the process of creating our Digital Profile, which I think is a more dynamic document and body of work than the usual phrase, ‘digital strategy,’ we have found an imaginative way of considering the presence and shape of SHL on the web.

In a typically astute blog post, Lorcan Dempsey noted the low profile given to the Library Management System in three senior library systems posts. The LMS did sit within those roles, but was not highlighted as an area of development or innovation. At SHL, our Digital Profile deliberately includes the LMS as an area of considerable change. We are the first major UK research library, alongside another RLUK library at SOAS and also Birkbeck College, to move from a proprietary to an open source system. Our thinking on this issue has been influenced by the broader strategy on digital environments in that we wish to create a research culture within the library itself which questions all that we do, rather than simply act in a supporting role to other researchers.

So, the Digital Profile will be focused in three areas; Services, Content and Futures. The LMS project falls into the Services strand and is its largest single area of work, although others include our Everyware programme, which has replaced desktop computing with mobile devices throughout the library. Services will also act as the ‘home’ strand for our ongoing discussions with Camden Borough Council. Content includes all digitisation projects and is principally engaged with historic and rare materials, although the strand will also interact closely with potential areas of mass digitisation in our modern collections. Most importantly, Content will be defined by the term and activities associated with the Digital Humanities. This will not only act as a direct response to the latest report on our libraries by HEFCE but also seek to mature much existing activity into a closer relationship with our key academic stakeholders.

Perhaps the most unprecedented of our strands is Futures. All large research libraries are involved in often innovative and important projects on content and services. Indeed, our devices loan service has actually brought us up to speed rather than pushed boundaries, although this will change with the Everyware II project. The Futures strand of our Digital Profile is concerned with presenting the library as a commercial, as well as a critical mass organisation. Its main themes are concerned with addressing the fact that, with the exception of private researchers, Senate House Libraries is invisible outside of Higher Education.

It is deliberate that the responsibility for ensuring a creative space (and creative spaces) lies within Digital Environments, even though all staff and researchers will benefit from this. Technology is at the core of our planning for the future. It is also crucial to how we engage with new audiences and with new debates. For example, the Digital Profile will enable us to bring fresh groups of people into contact with our collections and services and also allow the library and its staff to reach out corporately to other relevant platforms such as the wider cultural heritage sector, the BBC and the Guardian Online.

In all of these new arenas we will seek to become known as a producer of original content and as accessible to diverse audiences, and to do both of these things by the inventive implementation of digital practices and technologies. Overused the word digital may be, but in a context of calculated risk, experiment and openness I hope the Senate House Libraries Digital Profile can further transform our contribution to the experience of students, scholars and the public in their use of our great collections.

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.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Stars of Page and Screen










I have been working on an idea concerning the sociology of libraries over the last few weeks. John B. Thompson, Professor of Sociology at Cambridge University, published a book recently, called Merchants of Culture. It is the most important modern work on the publishing industry and follows his equally essential Books in the Digital Age. Both studies deal with the commercial publishing industry and where it is heading, but also with the production and dissemination of new research, particularly in the UK and US. These are challenging books about challenging times for books.

Thompson’s work is founded on the idea that the book itself has played a critical social role. It struck me a while ago that this was also something I frequently write about, but rather than a publishing focus my attention generally turns to libraries. To make some sense of this it is helpful to look at some overarching concepts with regard to knowledge. 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 move 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

Thompson argues that the book has been the major source of recorded knowledge for millennia in all these sectors but that in some of them, there are now questions over its future as a physical object. I agree that there are fundamental changes happening in our time, and also that because of their speed are still able to surprise us. For instance, Amazon’s ebooks outselling printed books was not something in all honesty that I expected last year.

There is of course more to books than paper. As objects they are definitive of their owners, passed though generations, held as historical evidence, communal and private. No other media has such immediate power and converse longevity. What these characteristics show is the ability of the book to interact with people. Thompson’s sociological approach to the commerciality of texts seems important because it brings the prospect of the book in line with our own futures.

One aspect that I believe could add to Thompson’s work is the role of libraries in this relation between humans and bound printed volumes. In the four environments above only the last one, the commercial market operates without libraries as part of the story. Even there, libraries are present as purchasers but they are not essential. In the other three landscapes though, libraries are both depth and perspective. The relation between libraries and books is still the most important in the printed (and digital) media’s life. In numbers 1 – 3 the acquisition rate for books is always at its highest in the library sector. For example, a large university will usually spend around £1.5million per annum on books. In the Russell Group of UK research-intensive universities this amounts to around £30million to £40million every year. For the record, the same universities spend around £80million to £90million per annum on journals. In both cases this is a combined figure for print and digital collecting. The division between page and screen in libraries dissipated years ago. It should also be noted that these figures only include 20 of the UK’s 180 higher education institutions.

As in most aspects of life money is a guide to both activity and priorities. Even in universities led by Vice-Chancellors who believe ‘the library’ is entirely on the Internet, (yes, such people really do exist), there is an acceptance of a business model that places the library service at the heart of the discovery, dissemination and archiving of research. In academia, the library fulfills a clear role in research and in teaching. Large libraries are still the busiest buildings on most campuses. Students rarely talk of ‘the death of the book,’ but more commonly that there are not enough of them to go around.

In public life and in the world’s workplaces, libraries are equally essential to the business of producing books. At least two of the UK and US principal libraries are Public: New York and Birmingham. This is not to mention the Library of Congress and the British Library. The metropolitan services and the smallest community libraries serve to act as physical communal spaces and also as a link to what I refer to as the global library. Even the most remote library, perhaps only used by a few dispersed communities is linked via the web and inter-library loans to every other world library. This is a fact often bypassed by policy makers.

In Britain recently there was a day of protest in support of the country’s public libraries. Most acutely in Manchester, swathes of financial cuts have seen many services reduced or axed completely. At the top of most of these lists come libraries. It would seem that many local authority Chief Executives share the views of the type of Vice-Chancellor mentioned above.

The complex and multifarious world of work, from legal firms, to government departments (ironically) to the global span of the UN and UNESCO also 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.

As Thompson observes changes in the publishing world so I observe a need to voice real purpose in the global library. As a profession, librarians have been very successful in redefining our role in the Internet age, but far less successful in showing why that role is so important to education, the public and business. These are initial thoughts towards an approach for a major piece of research I would like to undertake in the field of the sociology of the global library. There is an opportunity to discuss in depth, how the converged web and library acts as an essential part of the future of the book.

In universities there is a triangle formed by researchers, publishers and librarians that is interdependent. I will leave aside the issue of open access publishing for the moment. In public life, the library is a precious 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 future of books and libraries is shared, and as has always been the case, their sociology is also one that will develop in parallel. Books are stars however they are viewed.

Our histories – our futures





No one 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 (and much more besides) to the Internet, we operate in an increasingly collaborative information environment. But that is primarily about library systems – which although underpinning how we work, do not define what we do. 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: an intellectual engagement with readers. It is not said often enough that great libraries such as ours only work because of the quality of the staff, their expertise and knowledge, which work in them. Librarians are highly skilled research practitioners in a distinctive way, which is based on intervening in support of academic practice and considering how the global library network in digital and print forms can assist in moving a research project forward.

By example, in my own services, the role that is played by the libraries, (and librarians) of the University of London is, in my view, exceptionally 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 maintining 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 position 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 form the major university collections are in a symbiotic relationship, where the significance of humanities research is sometimes so exposed that others feel it must, as a point of principle, be questioned.

Continuing to find answers to those questions, defending the role of research and knowledge in the humanities, and ultimately making clear the purpose of our libraries is why I work in one of Europe’s largest collections, which also happens to be held in one of its most expensive cities.

So let’s 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 4000 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. We stopped being monks years ago, with only a few exceptions, whose names I will restrain myself from mentioning.

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. Print did not fully obliterate the oral tradition. Radio did not demolish newspapers. Television altered both these forms as well as film but did not wipe out any of them. Home entertainment challenged cinema but box office takings are higher than ever. 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 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.

This positive mentality too, is essential to the future of humanities collections. Rather than merely defending our collections, and our research fields from those who may not immediately consider them important, our future depends on confidence and authority concerning who we are, why we are here and on the broader contribution that the collecting in, teaching and studying of, the humanities makes to society.

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 and libraries in the centre of London are a remarkable, unique and shared resource.

The UK’s great libraries, as is the case with all of the world’s most significant collections will adapt to and exploit the digital age, our response to the many questions being posed about our purpose, indeed the purpose of the humanities will be imaginative, and the development of those collections and the staff who interpret them will be guiding values for the future.