D-Lib Magazine
November 2000

Volume 6 Number 11

ISSN 1082-9873

Taking the British Library Forward in the Twenty-first Century


Lynne Brindley
Chief Executive
The British Library

Red Line



The end of the 20th century saw the British Library successfully moved into its new, flagship building in London. Problems and criticisms associated with the largest public building project of the century in the UK have largely ceased as users and visitors signal their approval. Researchers love the reading rooms and the much enhanced quality of associated services; visitors marvel at the showcase exhibition galleries; and large parts of the Library’s collections are now housed in an environment fitting to their international standing. The building stands as a confident symbol of the importance of ALL libraries to the nation’s cultural, educational and economic success.

Yet it is at this very time of success that the British Library needs to turn to, and accelerate its engagement with, the critical and transformational issues associated with the digital world and the new demands being made by our wide range of users and stakeholders. My arrival as newly appointed Chief Executive in July has provided the opportunity for the Library to focus on new strategic directions and this article aims to share our early thinking with the D-Lib community.

Strategic directions for the British Library

We are engaged in a strategic journey that recognises the centrality of the Web to our future and seeks gradually to re-position the Library as a key player in a multiplicity of collaborative arrangements, within national and international networks of libraries, with scholars and researchers, and with other public and private sector bodies to ensure the timely provision of appropriate services for the future.

Our emerging vision has the strap-line of "making accessible the world’s intellectual, scientific and cultural heritage". We seek to make the collections of the British Library (and other great collections) accessible on everyone’s ‘virtual bookshelf’, wherever this may be -- at work, at school, at college, at home. This implies a larger focus on e-strategy, including digitisation and digital collecting; more emphasis on presentation of the Library’s collections in the context of other great collections and worthwhile resources world-wide; much more active use and development of navigational tools to assist users; and reaching out through the Web (directly and mediated through appropriate educational agencies and the public libraries) to a much wider public.

The British Library's e-strategy

Our e-strategy will be at the core of our work and will underpin many of our priority developments. Firstly, and at the core of the British Library’s future relevance and mission, is the continuing effort being expended to ensure that the UK will have an adequate system of legal deposit for an electronic age. Our collaboration with the other legal deposit libraries is critical to defining the framework for this, and for devising a practical solution. Meanwhile, a code of practice for the voluntary deposit of non-print publications has been agreed as an interim measure, endorsed by publishing trade bodies, the legal deposit libraries and our sponsoring government department, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Our digital infrastructure is being critically enhanced by a deal that the British Library has just concluded with IBM, following a lengthy procurement process, to provide a digital store which will form the technical platform to support the Library’s acquisition and preservation of collection materials in digital form, together with digitised elements of its own historical collections. The digital store will be designed using the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) reference model and will build on the work of the CEDARS digital preservation project within which the British Library is acting as a test site. The Dutch national library, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, has embarked simultaneously on a similar project with IBM, and we envisage working in close collaboration with Koninklijke Bibliotheek as we move into uncharted digital territories. We will hope to contribute to, and share findings from, the international digital preservation research agenda, not least by providing an excellent test-bed for such work.

The Library is also pursuing new opportunities for digitisation of its collections. We were encouraged by a recent House of Commons Committee report, primarily on public libraries but dealing with some British Library matters (1). Let me quote from the report.

….we strongly support the British Library in its endeavours to continue its digitalisation of internationally important books and manuscripts. We recommend that, wherever possible, those images should be freely available on the Internet. We consider that support for this process should be considered a high priority for Lottery or Government funding as appropriate. It should be the Government’s avowed aim to establish the British Library as a hub for the UK and the international library network. This will enable the British Library to become a universal resource rather than the preserve of a relatively small number of users on the site -- a library for the many not just for the few. The expansion of the British Library’s role should not be at the expense of and should in no way compromise the performance of the British Library’s core statutory functions….

The Library currently has two major digitisation bids in progress for lottery funding of nationally significant heritage material. We are leading a consortium of bidders on the theme of ‘a national sense of place’, focussed on the location and appearance of places within the UK. We are also a partner in a bid on the subject of ‘moving here’, with content based on immigration to England. There are plans for the digitisation of some 100,000 of our most attractive images to create a picture library, our early photographic collections are being put on the Web, and we are in collaboration with Keio University digitising several surviving copies of Gutenberg’s bible, enabling scholars to compare copies virtually, in ways previously impossible.

But the label of digitisation hides rather deeper considerations and policy issues. Whilst we wish to make a critical mass of digital material available, we see limited merit in digitisation without some coherence of purpose and integrity. With Cliff Lynch, Executive Director of the Coalition for Networked Information in the US, we believe that it is critical to ‘weave primary content with commentary, criticism, scholarship and instruction’. Materials digitised need to be described, related, contextualised, justified and scoped. These are complex tasks involving a range of new collaborations with scholars, teachers, educational publishers, and so on. New models for these kinds of partnerships are international and complex: we need to share lessons on how to ‘re-purpose’ our materials, and understand the range of business models appropriate for such ventures.

Collaborative e-ventures in support of research and scholarship

Let me share with you two examples of the Library’s current involvement with such collaborations. The first example is the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) which is currently a showcased project within the ECAI (Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative) led from the University of California, Berkeley. The project is developing methodologies and software for storing, querying, and displaying cultural features that vary through time. The IDP aims to bring together all the cave documents in high-quality digital format, and integrate electronically dispersed, fragile and relatively inaccessible collections housed in four major institutions -- the National Library of China, the British Library, the Bibliotheque nationale de France, and the Institute of Oriental Studies, St Petersburg. The project has already had substantial support from the Mellon Foundation and from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and with their continuing and potentially extended support, we have every hope that this will be a digital scholarship project of immense international value.

A second, rather different example, is Fathom, a recently announced partnership involving the British Library, Columbia University New York, the London School of Economics, Cambridge University Press, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and the New York Public Library, together with a growing number of cultural and educational contributors of international standing. It is intended that through its Website will provide access to a range of e-course and related content, and will act as a quality knowledge space. The British Library is actively developing digital content and a range of ‘stories’ contributed by our curators.

I cite these two examples particularly to lead into another facet of our e-strategy, namely the recognition of the important contribution our curators and bibliographers have to make in this new environment. One of the greatest assets of the British Library, in parallel with its collections, is the expertise of many of its curatorial staff, who are often international scholars in their fields. They will have critical roles to play in international scholarship and research projects in the digital field, in entrepreneurial Internet ventures, and in supporting wider public access to, and understanding of, our great collections in an e-setting. We are currently refining the sets of skills and competencies needed for these new roles of brokering, interpretation, exploitation, and complex partnerships.

Collaboration with higher education

Collaboration and partnership with the higher education sector, in the UK and more widely, is a strategic priority. The UK framework of the Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER), sponsored by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), provides an excellent focus for dialogue and for a significant contribution to its fulfilment by the British Library. What is emerging is a shared agenda for development and the opportunity for the Library to enrich services for researchers and students, and for the incorporation of many of the DNER’s offerings in the services offered to the wider user communities of the Library.

More specifically we are offering free access to students and academics to zetoc, which provides desk-top access to the table of contents of some 15 million journal articles and conferences, all accessible from the British Library: this service is in partnership with JISC and the national data-centre based at Manchester. We are also working within the same partnership to develop our electronic document delivery services as part of a distributed network of providers. In the area of portal development the DNER has a well-established framework through its Resource Discovery Network (RDN) with its faculty/subject nodes. The Library will make initial contributions to this network in the areas of complementary medicine and in sustainable business: reciprocally the Library will embed aspects of this navigational service within its own portal to improve services to its reading room users, and to its remote users. Further ideas are emerging, for example, collaborative ways of improving coverage of the national bibliography in the area of quality electronic resources evaluated and catalogued within the RDN. Potentially the British Library can also enrich the DNER through its special relationship with other national libraries all over the world. We are in the final stages of negotiating a major European Commission funded programme to enable the development of ‘The European Library’, to assist the provision, over the next few years, of a pan-European digital national library for Europe, providing open and seamless access to the digital resources of the major national libraries, with multilingual access, together with technical and business models that can be extended more widely.

For a D-Lib article it is inevitable that the focus is on digital collaboration, but mention should also be made of the significant progress being made, in partnership with UK higher education, towards more collaboration in collection development and management. Recognising that Panizzi’s aspiration for the British Museum Library to be comprehensive for all time has been for some time unachievable, despite a continuing commitment to high levels of acquisition, we intend to work closely with others to move towards a more integrated and distributed collections strategy nationally, in which the Library plays a leading role. This is of course sensitive territory, and will require trust, dialogue, and flexibility, as we aim together to provide the most effective collection coverage to support research and scholarship within the UK research library system.

Collaboration for wider public access

Developing as a national library ‘for the many’ without detriment to the core statutory functions, as recommended by the House of Commons Committee report referred to above, and playing a role in the Government’s widening access agenda is a major challenge for the Library. Of course we offer a range of facilities at St Pancras for the general public, including exhibitions, public talks and lectures, and tours of the building. However, we envisage that the provision of digitised material from the British Library’s collections on the Web will clearly represent a major plank in scaling up provision to meet this new challenge.

We believe strongly that we need to develop partnerships with the public libraries in the UK as major agents in extending access, through, for example, the People’s Network, through learning centres, and through traditional public library channels. To this end we have just announced a call for proposals within the Library’s Co-operation and Partnership Programme which will encourage practical manifestations of this outreach strategy. We will encourage projects that provide public library gateways to the Library’s range of services; we would seek projects to streamline admission to learning resources in cities, regions and the national library, ensuring easier referral; we are interested in exploring the design and delivery of regional and virtual exhibitions to reach wider publics.

Worth mentioning is ‘Turning the Pages’, an animated computer simulation of leafing through selected Library treasures, where we have shown that we can lead the way in using creative multi-media technology to make our treasures accessible to a wider audience. We have licensed three sites in Northumberland for the ‘Turning the Pages’ digitised version of the Lindisfarne Gospels: the original precious manuscript is on temporary loan to the NorthEast: the digitised version is available for the long-term and for everyone to share. Ways of scaling up this kind of initiative will be sought within our e-strategy.


This article can only skim the surface of the developing strategic directions of the British Library. It has focussed broadly on the e-strategy as the engine for organisational and cultural change to meet new challenges, but has inevitably been selective. There are strands of our strategic ‘work in progress’ that I have paid little attention to in this article -- they are important and will emerge in later iterations of our new strategic directions. I have stressed the importance of partnerships as the Library seeks to re-position itself more integrally in the national and international library network. We believe that, primarily through digital developments, we can enable wider access to our collections, working closely with partners, such as public libraries and public and private players in the education sector, to ‘re-purpose and re-present’ our offerings. We will work with them to define priorities for our digital programmes. At the same time we seek to work with scholars and researchers to ensure innovative programmes of the highest international quality and scholarly value: the modernisation and re-interpretation of the curatorial role is essential to achieve these objectives.

I have skirted over the issues of organisational and cultural change needed to succeed, but the Library does not underestimate their importance and the difficulty of the task. Hawkins and Battin (2) have expressed it well when they say:

Because of the capacity of digital technology to eliminate barriers to information access and global communication, it is no longer possible to confine changes to individual units, institutions, or commercial organisations. New, pervasive interrelationships among all those who use digital technology present unprecedented financial and managerial challenges, as we seek to re-interpret social values and institutional missions in a reconfigured world.

We are entering into a range of discussions, debates and dialogues on the nature and pace of our strategic development as a relevant national library for the 21st century. Feedback from this article would be welcomed. We would commit to a consolidated response to such feedback in a later D-Lib issue. Please email comments to


1. House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Sixth report. Public Libraries. London, The Stationery Office Limited, 17 May 2000.

2. Hawkins, Brian L and Battin, Patricia, eds. The mirage of continuity: reconfiguring academic information resources for the 21st century. Washington, CLIR and AAU, 1998.

Copyright© 2000 Lynne Brindley

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DOI: 10.1045/november2000-brindley