We have in the United Kingdom some of the richest and most important libraries and collections in the world, but much of that valuable resource is not known nor easily accessible to scholars and the wider community. We now have an unprecedented, once and for all opportunity to make these riches available. Making the most of our libraries is a slogan which can encompass a programme that, if properly planned and funded, will unlock the untold wealth of the country's national printed heritage. We - and the other members of the advisory groups - have given a good deal of time and effort assisting with the preparation and drafting of this report. It is essential that the information revealed in it be used to benefit users and libraries in the future.
Computers have been used since the 1960s for cataloguing library collections, but initially they were used for listing current acquisitions and periodicals. Computer cataloguing of the numerous older and special collections generally lagged behind, and this proved serious for many libraries, especially those older ones with larger collections: some have striven nobly to convert their catalogues, but others have not been able to devote sufficient resources of staff and money to the task. This has resulted in an unbalanced view of library holdings and makes tracing significant material difficult - sometimes impossible - for scholars and other users.
The setting up of the Libraries Review Group for the higher education sector under the chairmanship of Professor Sir Brian Follett resulted in three initiatives especially relevant to the development of a national strategy for libraries:-
Collectively these three initiatives require a broad national strategy to provide scholars and researchers with more systematic and accessible library provision than has ever previously been the case in the United Kingdom.
The HEFC Libraries Review Group concerned itself entirely with academic libraries and their resources; however, it recognised that scholars, especially in the humanities, whether academic or privately sponsored, have to use other libraries. The public libraries of this country have unrivalled research material in many special collections and particularly important local history collections - items not usually to be found in the national libraries. Few of these collections have catalogue records in machine readable form which are accessible over the Internet or other electronic networks. In addition to the public libraries, the UK has an unrivalled range of libraries founded and maintained by benefactors, private scientific and learned societies, professional organisations, religious bodies and denominations of all kinds, and other voluntary institutions. Many are charitable bodies eager to make their resources available for research, but they do not have the finance either to catalogue their collections adequately or to convert existing catalogues to machine readable form.
The study - funded by the British Library Research and Innovation Centre (BLRIC) and also led by Philip Bryant - which forms the second element of this report, provides data on the size and nature of the problem for libraries outside the higher education sector, and gives added weight to the recommendations that a national strategy for retrospective conversion is urgently needed. This strategy should have two benefits:
We have reasonable estimates of the numbers of catalogue records to be converted in the nation's libraries. We also know from the first study the average cost of producing such machine readable records. We now need:-
The managing body will need to set priorities, perhaps judging that certain groups or categories of library have the potential to contribute more to the country's library research resources in the short to medium term than others, but there are many other factors to consider,
As Chairmen of the two advisory groups for the studies, we would consider it deplorable if nothing is done. The consequences for research, especially in the humanities and social sciences, will be serious and will prevent the full use of the unrivalled resources in our often 'unknown' and frequently under-utilised library collections. We cannot afford to waste them.