Conference logo Networked Information in an International Context


9th and 10th February 1996 at the Ramada Hotel, Heathrow, UK


JOHN MAHONEY, Director of Computing and Telecommunications, the British Library

This account was drafted for this report by The Marc Fresko Consultancy. It is based on notes taken during the presentation and slides used.


As one of the world’s great research libraries, the British Library has served scholarship, research and innovation for over four hundred and fifty years. Now, tremendous changes are taking place at a rapid, and increasing, rate. Some of these transformations arise from the demands of users who are themselves influenced by new phenomena, such as the Internet; some are due to the sweeping changes affecting equipment, particularly computers and communications. The British Library is preparing for this new environment, not only by initiating programmes to exploit information technology, but by forging new partnerships to meet the challenges ahead.


As well as being the national library of the United Kingdom, the British Library is one of the world’s great research libraries. With an annual budget of £110 million, it employs a staff of 2,300 people and houses over one hundred and fifty million items.

Its main purpose is to serve scholarship, research and innovation. In this respect the Library is not primarily providing resources for undergraduate teaching, but acts rather as a research material provider. Its strategic objectives are exemplified in the following quotations from the Library’s Strategic Objectives for the Year 2000 report:


Computer literacy is becoming more and more commonplace, from the schoolroom to the workplace (a library example of how much this aspect has changed is in the OPAC, the On-line Public Access Catalogue, which was originally feared to be too complex for the public user and is now considered to be too simple). This process has been encouraged by the exponentially increasing use of the Internet.

In its own services and collections, The British Library is sure that digital materials will not replace all traditional library materials and that people will continue to want to use them traditional materials. In parallel, there is an inexorable rise in the demand for digital materials.

There is also a definite trend for users to want desktop type of access, whenever they want and wherever they are.


Information Technology (IT) is polarising in respect to its equipment and activities. Convergence on a global scale is manifest in computers and communications, media and publishing (where many organisations are merging) and education and entertainment. The same technology trends are catalysing great individuality, creativity and variety.

Access to electronically held information is distance-independent and in the near future the cost of using powerful communications over long distances will be negligible. At present, one hour of such use would cost about five cents. Although this might be perceived as relatively low and although it will undoubtedly fall, the level of charge is currently two orders of magnitude above costs and significant changes are perhaps unlikely over the next five years. Nevertheless communications is now viewed as a global commodity, though the infrastructure is not in place as yet in many parts of the world.

Software tools are becoming increasingly inexpensive, easy-to-use, powerful and sophisticated. This, combined with the development, price reductions and availability of hardware advances, such as massively parallel processing, will allow desktop computers to interact very quickly and a great deal more naturalistically.

The British Library is preparing for the new environment, where access will be a primary factor. It has initiated the Initiatives for Access programme of pilots and demonstrators to exploit IT, test new services, examine organisational implications and provide a vehicle for collaboration and Public Relations - including PR on exactly what a great Research and Development library is capable of.

The change of technology has been viewed by some as a change of purpose, but this is not so. That remains the same as it has been for the last four hundred and fifty years.


The vision of the British Library is of integrated access to its digital collections and those of other organisations. It will, therefore, be organised, and indexed, for such access and will work towards increasing the access, both in terms of people and materials, while maintaining availability of digital archives.

Other aspects of that vision will include staff having "digital competencies" (all staff will have need of these, not just a few "digital librarians"), establishing a balance between the requirements of Intellectual Property Rights and fair dealing with information and the commitment of substantial investment, from both the Library and its partners, be they government or private sector.

The priorities will be:


Collaboration has always been part of library provision and this has been encouraged by lack of resources, especially on a national level. The global digital library clearly requires co-operation, not least on standards, protocols and on services based on access to digital collections. Different kinds of partnerships will encompass agreements on standards, collaboration with other digital collection owners and joint ventures with the private sector. Different partners could be derived from the academic community, from industry and commerce and from public libraries. Partnership will provide opportunities for developing improved, more comprehensive services and a means of sharing development costs. In addition to nationally-based partnerships, the British Library will be seeking to extend collaboration with relevant organisations in both the European Union and the United States

It will also seek to utilise the United Kingdom government’s Private Finance Initiative, acknowledging its key points (transfer of risk to the private sector, value for money for the taxpayer and open competition in the selection of partners) in respect to its three main models (financing public investment, private initiative and joint venture).

Overall, the great changes now taking place world-wide and at an accelerating rate will transform the nature of all libraries and the British Library will not be exempt from that process - far from it. That is the challenge over the next few years, a challenge for which the British Library is preparing and which it is looking forward to meeting.


Information is available from and at URL:

British Library R&D Report 6250
© The British Library Board 1996
© Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher Education Funding Bodies 1996

The opinions expressed in this report are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of the sponsoring organisations.


The primary publication medium for this report is via the Internet at URL
It may also be purchased as photocopies or microfiche from the British Thesis Service, British Library Document Supply Centre, Boston Spa, Wetherby, West Yorkshire, LS23 7BQ.

This report of the conference was prepared by The Marc Fresko Consultancy Telephone +44 181 645 0080 E-mail

Converted to HTML by Isobel Stark of UKOLN, July 1996