Beyond the Beginning: The Global Digital Library

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Director, Digital library Programme, The British Library


This paper describes major initiatives at the British Library, focusing on the Digital Library Programme. This programme and other initiatives are considered in their wider contexts, both in terms of the library and information worlds and the political environment.


There has been much debate over the past five years, including in this conference, about the impending impact of electronic or digital information on libraries. These debates have revealed several major issues which centre around three main points:

There are now several substantial programmes in the UK and elsewhere which are addressing these broad issues. The British Library has itself contributed to these developments, with a number of projects grouped under the umbrella of the Initiatives For Access programme. Initiatives For Access included:

and others.

While the services continue, the Initiatives For Access programme has been subsumed into the Library’s Digital Library Programme, which is described below.

The Political Context

The Labour Party document in its IT policy – Communicating Britain’s Future [42] – follows a now familiar line on the benefits for society to be gained from the presence of an information superhighway, ubiquitous in terms of geographic and social reach, so to provide universal access. These are some key points of the document:

The British Library is mentioned twice. The first mention is in the context of

"the establishment of a multi-media centre – using both Lottery and private funds ... linked in to schools around the country", in order to give schoolchildren access to the British Library’s collection. One could imagine that centre providing primary source core curricula material, working together with teachers, other sources of primary source material and other public library or academic programmes.

The document’s second mention of the Library is alongside such as the British Museum and the Science Museum, as contributing to the proposed "Millennium Archive", whereby:

"the great storehouses of knowledge and material that we possess in this country are made readily available to our schools and libraries."

A mix of Lottery funding and private sector money is envisaged in order to achieve "free supply to every school and public library in the country".

The British Library welcomes such a suggestion, but sees that digital and networking technologies can have most value in providing access to existing archives; in this way the Millennium Archive would not be a conventional archive, but rather a constantly evolving educational and distance learning resource for our schools and universities. Probably everyone reading this report would welcome such an initiative, but given it is an IT project after all, we need to start it soon if we are going to be ready for the Millennium – and beyond.

Whatever one’s view of these global activities, it is clear that they will not go away; the Government recognises that the climate these activities are setting will affect libraries, whether academic, national or public. The library and information community therefore has a real opportunity to both influence and benefit from developing policy.


Two major developments are underway at the British Library which will enable it to provide access to electronic content alongside the traditional collection materials. These developments are:

Extension of Legal Deposit

Legal deposit is the arrangement whereby publishers of UK printed publications are required under the 1911 Copyright Act to deposit one copy of every publication with the British Library and, on request, to any of the other five deposit libraries in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The purpose of legal deposit is to maintain the national archive of UK publications for posterity.

With the development of new publication media, there is a severe risk that, unless legal deposit is extended to publication media other than print, the comprehensive nature of the national archive will not be maintained in future. In the light of this, the British Library has led a national initiative for a change in the legal deposit law to cover digital media. The Department of National Heritage (DNH) issued a consultation paper [43] in February 1997 asking for views on how deposit of digital media can work, what the implications are for publishers, and what the costs are for the publishers and the taxpayer.

The extension of legal deposit is an essential element in the British Library’s Digital Library Programme given the Library’s statutory duty to maintain a comprehensive collection of materials which forms the national published archive.

Digital Library Programme

The goal of this programme is :

to improve, for all our users, access to the British Library’s collection however it might develop in the future, through partnerships with the private sector.

The Library sees the Digital Library development as vital to its future. We wish to make our collection more widely known and more widely accessible by exploiting the opportunities provided by the use of digital technologies and networking. We want to make our collection available to an expanding, world-wide community of academics, business people, and other researchers of all kinds, wherever they happen to be working.

The programme’s priorities – in no particular order – are:

There will be other benefits of a digital library, such as the conservation and preservation of the library’s collection – particularly items which are fragile, of high value, or which are heavily used, through the use of digital surrogates.

The digital library is therefore an integral part of the Library’s overall vision of the way it will in future fulfil its responsibilities as the national library of the United Kingdom. As Brian Lang, the Library’s Chief Executive said in his Introduction to the British Library Information S ystems Strategy [44]:

"We do not envisage an exclusively digital library. We are aware that some people feel that digital materials will predominate in libraries of the future. Others anticipate that the impact will be slight. In the context of the British Library, printed books, manuscripts, music, sound recordings and all the other existing materials in the collection will always retain their central importance, and we are committed to continuing to provide, and to improve, access to these in our reading rooms. The importance of digital materials will, however, increase."


By the year 2000, we expect that the British Library will be an international centre of expertise in the use of digital materials as well as a major component within a global digital library. We will simultaneously provide access to a wide range of electronic materials produced outside the Library and make the Library’s collections and catalogues available in electronic form.

The key elements of our digital library, which we hope will be in place by the year 2000, are as follows:


The Library is observing three principles to guide its digital library developments:


The British Library is a non-departmental government body, funded mainly through Grant-in-Aid from the Department of National Heritage. At present, the level of Grant-in-Aid is around £85 million per year, but the Library generates an additional £35 million per year comprising revenue from its priced services, sponsorship, and funding from other sources such as the European Commission’s Library Plan.

The development, provision and management of the operational and IT infrastructure for a digital library on the scale envisaged will require new expertise, experience and ingenuity. It is difficult to put a figure on the scale of the developments in financial terms. However, it is likely that these developments will require a multi-million pound investment, well beyond the funds available through Grant-in-Aid or from the Library’s current earnings, especially given that demand for our existing services based on print materials is increasing. The Library currently generates revenue in the order of £25 million annually from its document supply and reprographic services; with sufficient investment these revenue streams, together with the addition of new business opportunities for multi-media publishing and content licensing, could be grown significantly. The Library emphasises that it would wish to continue providing core (statutory) digital services on a cost recovery basis.

The Library’s Digital Library Programme is seeking to determine whether a partnering arrangement with a private sector partner can be achieved. This would be through the Public Private Partnership (PPP), as a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) project. With this arrangement, the Library would be provided with the capabilities it needs to develop and manage digital collections to meet its obligations under the British Library Act, including the technical infrastructure needed to store, preserve and provide access to the archive of digital non-print legal deposit material, in return for allowing the private sector to exploit the market opportunities to be obtained from content-based digital services and products.

The PFI Process

To be successful, any PFI arrangement made by the Library will have to:

PFI projects operate under the EU procurement rules and the selection process must be open and must ensure competition. This applies to all stages of the process. At the time of this conference, the library was engaged in a market sounding phase; of around 100 companies which responded, intensive discussions took place with 52. Since then, a request for expressions of interest has been published and responses are being analysed. Details of the companies involved and of the current status are available from the British Library’s Website, Portico [45]. A full competitive tender exercise will follow, with a significant number of tenders anticipated; the full business case identifying the preferred option will then be produced for approval by the Library’s Board and by the Department of National Heritage. This final stage, which is likely to include a negotiated procedure involving some four bidders, will lead to the award of contracts sometime during 1998.


It is anticipated that the content-based services and products to be generated through the PFI project will focus primarily on scientific, technical and medical data and on heritage materials where opportunities can most readily be identified. As part of a wider digitisation programme, and to complement the PFI initiatives, the Library submitted a proposal to the Millennium Commission for a project entitled Sounds and Images of Britain for the Millennium. This envisaged the creation of a database of digitised images and recordings, providing a definitive picture of Britain over two millennia and accessible on a large and national scale at home, in schools, in public libraries, or wherever a network link were available. The proposal was bold, and unfortunately unsuccessful, but the Library is continuing to explore with the Heritage Lottery Fund the possibility of obtaining Lottery Funding to digitise scholarly and educational material in the interests of improving access for research and for the general public of the UK. Digitisation for preservation is also a critical concern for the British Library.


Other papers in this conference have reminded us of the many strands of policy and activity which contribute to the development of national and international networks. Some strands are now broken, some intact but under tension, and some as yet untested. The strands include the Information for All bid to the Millennium Commission; the Labour Party’s IT manifesto calling on the telephony and cable TV companies to wire up every school and public library; Reading the Future’s "hint" that the then government would establish an IT fund with post Millennium Lottery money to help build the network; the UK Joint Information Systems Committee of the UK higher education funding bodies (JISC) will continue to fund SuperJANET and its successor joint academic networks; and industry and the public will have the benefit of a thriving and very competitive commercial internet marketplace in which to buy connectivity. The European Digital Cities Initiative is one of many EU projects working towards this scenario, and there are other national or international ventures (such as the G7 Bibliotheca Universalis project) seeking to build the cybercities of tomorrow. The UK, and this includes the British Library, simply cannot afford to be left behind.

Assuming that the future picture is one of ubiquitous connectivity and universal service, we envisage a situation where the various library sectors negotiate access to published information for their sector; we have seen this in the UK’s higher education national services and site licence strategy, and the British Library has recently announced an agreement with Elsevier on the basis of the size of the Library’s user base and the corresponding business for Elsevier.

All this is fittingly summarised by the UK Library and Information Commission’s (LIC) 20-20 Vision document, which calls for:

"a holistic rather than sectoral order to realise fully the potential value of library and information services in society"


"a coherent approach to information policy at national level... there will be a digital library collection co-ordinated nationally/internationally embracing the world’s knowledge and creativity in which the UK’s heritage of intellectual property will be globally available in digital form"

The terms of reference of the LIC Working Group chaired by Matthew Evans and led by John Dolan are very broad indeed; the British Library welcomes the opportunity to be involved and encourages the new government to heed its deliberations. The British Library has never existed in isolation and it welcomes the potential that a comprehensive national network could deliver.

[41] This account was drafted for this report by The Marc Fresko Consultancy. It is based on notes taken during the presentation, slides used, and text adapted from a paper supplied by the speaker.

[42] Communicating Britain's Future, The Labour Party, 150 Walworth Road, London SE17 1JT.

[43] See for the text of the DNH Press Release.

[44] British Library Information Systems Strategy,

[45] See

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