UK MLA – a white knight for the library user?

Today I discovered that there is a body in the UK called the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.  The point of it is somewhat unclear, but it looks as if it might have some input to government policy on how the UK library service is run.

Two things have bothered me for some time about this.  Firstly the cost of interlibrary loans is now so great that a reading list of 20 items costs around $180.  Of course this means that you can’t pursue a course of study, at that price.  Secondly, as databases of journals like JSTOR become the usual way to consult the academic literature, and as outsiders have no access to these, it’s getting more difficult for non-professionals to compete.

What to do?  Well, I’ve found that John Dolan is ‘head of library policy’ and written to him.  I’ve also written to David Dawson, ‘Senior policy adviser Digital Futures’ and pointed out the problem that the British Library won’t digitise its medieval manuscripts, or let anyone else do so.

It will be interesting to see what response comes back. Someone must be interested in these issues besides me.

Postscript: to his credit David Dawson got back to me very quickly with the following epistle:

The British Library is very active in digitising its collections, but these are obviously huge in scale and scope. I visited your site, and can understand your desire to see the relevant manuscripts digitised.

The BL have a set of standards for the way in which they digitise documents, to ensure that this is done once, and at high quality. I cannot comment on the figures that they gave you, but the BL is following best practice in digitisation.

They are in the process of making large numbers of resources available online – recent projects include millions of pages of newspapers, substantial holdings from the Sound Archive and the Microsoft digitisation project is under way.
http://www.bl.uk/news/2005/pressrelease20051104.html

‘Best practice in digitisation’… or gold-plated?  Nothing online, tho, and no prospect of it.  This is rather disappointing.

Postscript (21st May): John Dolan has written back to me, and it sounds as if he is indeed in the processing of looking at some of these issues. I will write more on this when I have read his reply.

4 Responses to “UK MLA – a white knight for the library user?”


  1. Larry Swain

    HMMM, well, the BL is actually digitizing some of its medieval manuscript collection. And working with the BL, others have digitized manuscripts in the BL: Kevin Kiernan’s Electronic Beowulf being the most well known and there are currently projects to digitize Boethius mss and the Electronic Aelfric project which includes BL manuscripts. So the BL can’t be blamed for being slow on this issue, they were among the first in Britain, and continue the process.

    Public access to those digitized images however is a different question, really a different set of questions from the technological (hard drive space, T3 lines capable of handling the traffic, what manuscripts should be available etc). I might also mention that most of the BL’s medieval holdings are on microfilm and can be ordered by anyone and as I recall the cost is really about the cost of a book. Most libraries have microfilm readers, and if not, there’s a hand held version that’s available too–harder to work with because its smaller, but doable. Or get a friend or acquaintance to print out the microfilm for you and it can be scanned in as a pdf and sent to you hardcopy.

    I don’t know about over there, but over on this side of the pond most libraries sell privileges to people not otherwise associated with the institution so that everyone can have access who wants it, the fees are not usually exorbitant. Similarly at least at the BL and Oxford I was able to get reader cards without difficulty and had access not only to manuscripts but to electronic resources as well. Worth checking into, though as I recall you live in a somewhat rural area?

  2. Roger Pearse

    Of course there are isolated examples where the BL has digitised a manuscript, always, as far as I can see, where massive grants from other state-funded projects are available. But my general comment holds true: they are not digitising their collection, and won’t allow anyone else to do so either. Saying “we will agree when the sky rains gold” is a difference without a distinction, surely?

    In the age of the film camera, up to 1990, there were real problems with recording manuscripts.

    - Firstly you really had to use studio lighting. Hot lights are not something you want around manuscripts, except in the hands of experts.

    - Secondly, because you couldn’t see the result until it was developed, you really had to clamp the book into a book-cradle. This also was not something that you want just anyone doing.

    - Finally, presuming that you got this film, there was no way to get this into the hands of scholars. It was just a single copy, unless a facsimile was published. So how had all this effort and expense really benefitted anyone? Admittedly you had a security copy, but you probably couldn’t afford to do this much.

    But the advent of the internet and the digital camera has changed all this, and none of these considerations obtain.

    - You don’t need any lighting at all to get excellent photographs of manuscripts now.

    - You don’t care if the book is lying on a table; you just retake the shot, because you can see it instantly.

    - You can pop them onto a website while still in the library, using the local WiFi network, and the world can see them then and there. (And who doesn’t have broadband these days?)

    All of this costs nothing. Any academic could do this process, start to end, in an hour for the average 100 page medieval manuscript.

    This has been true since 2001 at least, when digital cameras began to have enough resolution. Any consumer camera of 5mp or more will do fine.

    In the light of this, insistence on refusing to allow academics who are handling the manuscripts to take snaps is foolish at best. (Indeed I suspect that photos are already been taken furtively with mobile phones!) Who better to do the job, than professional manuscript scholars?

    Insisting that nothing can be photographed unless it is done in a “Rolls-Royce” manner is hideously evil. The sky will never rain gold, so this is merely an excuse for endless delay.

    Proferring low-grade monochrome microfilm is likewise hogwhimperingly evil. Everyone hates these things for excellent reasons:

    1. They cost a fortune to get made, and don’t exist for most of the BL’s holdings. The BL won’t list the cost to make one; a duplicate of an existing one costs $120 (!). Cambridge University Library charge a dollar a frame for a microfilm (!) and are probably cheaper than the BL.

    2. The quality is rubbish, particularly of rubrics

    3. Printing them out costs a fortune. Again the BL don’t even list a price.

    4. When you do, the quality is rubbish, as I have ruefully had to experience this very weekend.

    5. No-one has a microfilm reader on their desktop, so we have to queue for readers in some far-off institution.

    The digital photograph is free, good quality, and trivial to produce. Why do anything else? What possible, rational reason is there to do anything else?

    Of course we could all live with the BL doing a google-books-type project, putting them all online rather than us photographing them. But they will not. Nor will they allow us to do so. The most they will do is get out of the way if paid huge sums. So we are left with the absurd situation where people are using microfilms, as the only way to get access.

    Look at the web. What BL mss, specifically, are online? Handfuls do not make a difference.

  3. Larry Swain

    No, I don’t think your general statement is true at all, according to the BL’s annual reports for the last several years they are digitizing manuscripts, and not only so, but they provide digitized images of manuscripts for those who order them (at a fee of course).

    While digital imaging has certainly become democritized, I certainly would not be in favor of any ol’ Tom, Dick, and Harry coming into the library and photographing any medieval manuscript he wished. Nor are all scholars who work on such manuscripts technologically savvy. There is also the matter of copyright and ownership: the BL on behalf of the govt and the people owns the manuscripts and controls reproduction rights. If just anyone can come in and take a picture as you seem to advocate, there can no longer be any control on the reproduction rights–one of the worst things about the web is assuming that no one has any rights to control material at all.

    I know of no academics who are complaining about the BLs insistence regarding the manuscripts that we not take photographs. And no, no pictures are being taken via cell phone since such devices are not allowed in the Reading Room, and given the set up of the current Reading Room, would be difficult if not impossible to be cladestine about taking such a photograph. As a professional manuscript scholar, I’d be dead set against the practice you advocate.

    Images are also available on CD. For 1-100 exposures, the fee is something like 27 pounds, not cheap but hardly exorbitant or prohibitive.

    As for the microfilm, quality much depends on the individual film and of course the manuscript in question. I know no one who “hates” them, and if you do, hey spring for the scanned images on CD. Simple.

    To counter:
    1) They are not prohibitive to get made, costing approximately the same as a hard back book. Check out the pricing guide on the BLs site. The last mss I bought on microfilm from them was 144 folia and with shipping (that’s 288 exposures) it cost me under $200 (about 100 pounds sterling). Yes, that’s a nice chunk o’ change and it put a dent in the pocket book: but I got the whole manuscript. I didn’t have to, I could have purchased only the exposures I immediately needed, making it much cheaper.

    Microfilm does in fact exist for most of the BLs medieval manuscript holdings and has done for almost 40 years after the BM microfilmed them in the late 60s.

    The quality admittedly varies, depending on a number of things. But the “quality” of rubrics has nothing to do with it, that’s an issue of color, not quality. But as the name indicates “rubrics” are uh, red. Certainly a jpg would solve that difficulty, but so would consultation with a catalogue description of the manuscript in question. Or better yet, before “publishing”, take a quick nip down to London, go to the BL and check the mss itself. A Readers Card costs $5 for us foreigners, I’ll be happy to write you a letter of reference, Roger, you do good work and provide a valuable service to us all. Its 2 blocks from Kings Cross station with a couple decent pubs just across the street for when you’re done and need to wet the whistle. Not even good quality digital images are any substitute for seeing and working with the real thing.

    Printing them out shouldn’t cost a fortune. Here, a microfilm printed here is anyway is 10 cents a page, so I’m looking at 10 or 20 dollars depending on how many leaves I’m printing…less if I’m not printing the whole mss at the moment but working on only one text. So say 200 pages at 10 cents a page is $20. It can’t be THAT much more expensive over there.

    As for the BL listing or not listing a price, they do have pricing guides on their site, though it isn’t easy to find, I confess. But that’s a problem of web design rather than some nefarious desire to keep you from the manuscripts.

    As mentioned in my previous note, there is an affordable hand held variety so you can literally have it on your desk top. I can’t speak for the availability in your area of microfilm readers, but every library I visited in England had several, and every library here does too. Let me know if you’re interested in the hand held sort and I’ll forward you some info.

    Regarding doing a “google like thing”, they already are associated with Google Scholar. There is certainly an issue with having everything online: the technical aspects cost. If you as British citizen wish to foot the bill for my research, hey I’m all for that! But since I suspect that most of your compatriots don’t, and don’t really want to pay a lot for your research, without a grant (oh those evil big money people!) underwriting such a project long term, it isn’t going to happen.

    If you look at the web, there is no institution that has many of their holdings online for viewing. Some samples, sure. Oxford which put some things up years ago hasn’t done a thing since, and the ones that are up aren’t even .05% of Oxford medieval holdings.

    Sure, in an ideal Star Trek world we’d have complete access to all medieval manuscripts available from my chair at all times without having to pay for it. But we don’t yet live in such a world, no matter how much I rail about what should be.

  4. Roger Pearse

    Thanks very much for your comments, Larry. They represent very much the point of view of the older library staff member, and it’s useful to hear them put. (I’ve re-edited my response to ensure that I don’t inadvertantly seem to attack *you* rather than the positions involved).

    Now I wasn’t sure why you worried about “reproduction rights” — few people are upset that material is freely available online, other than people selling something which as far as I know you are not. But I don’t think that it is for me to defend the idea of the internet, is it?

    Now about the suggestion that, rather than put stuff online, people should have to travel to the institution in question — are you serious? (Haven’t you just committed an eco-sin!?) Anyway, do we actually want Tom, Dick and Harry handling manuscripts rather than put material online?

    I’m sorry but I don’t understand how there can be disagreement as to whether the British Library is digitising manuscripts, other than the odd handful. Look at their web site. Does it contain hundreds or thousands of manuscripts, increasing every day, or does it not? It does not. Surely? If you disagree, point me to them!

    Now we both know this, which is why you comment that no-one else is doing it either (largely correctly). Well, I know. Shameful, isn’t it? The reason is that they have locked the doors and refused to do anything unless the sky rains gold. Well it won’t. So we have to ask ourselves whether we want this material online or not. I do. Don’t we all?

    Putting manuscripts online is basically free, and I have done so myself. It only costs a fortune if the process is gold-plated. That is just what the BL is doing, and everybody loses thereby.

    Some may feel that manuscript scholars like yourself aren’t to be trusted with taking photographs. But think about it for a moment. They’re considered safe to handle them in any way they think fit; but not to have a camera lens pointing over their shoulder while they do? I think we should ask why.

    Just to digress, I have long felt that manuscript libraries are missing a trick here. There are indeed people I wouldn’t trust with a burnt-out match! But the solution, surely, is training and screening. Issue permits to photograph, for a fee. Make it a condition of issue that the candidate attend a one-hour course on “safe photography and how to get the best out of your time” and charge $40 for it. That way you can weed out the idiots, inculcate policy, and make money.

    But all it takes is imagination. This is what is lacking everywhere, it seems to me. It was never possible to record complete collections — it now is. I won’t trade assertions with you about whether the BL has photographed all its mss! What I do know is that it certainly has not done its Tertullians, which are the ones I know about. Not even after promising an MP to do so, curiously.

    But why don’t we think outside the box for a moment. Are we entirely comfortable working with texts about as effectively as someone 70 years ago? Are we really happy to pay $200 for something that is low quality, hard to use, and that we could have made for nothing and made available to the world at the same time? Why, for heaven’s name?

    Microfilms: allow me a spot of satire here, if you would, as your comments touched my sense of humour. I imagined someone actually doing what seems to be advocated: to get his old printed books on microfilm rather than PDF?

    Well, I feel he should! Let him feel free to pay $200 and wait weeks, while I download one in PDF form from a website for nothing. Let him feel free to get into your car and drive down to the library, and sit there fiddling with film, while I hit the PgDn key on my keyboard a couple of times. Oh yes, and let him feel free to buy a crappy little hand-held reader, while I pop the PDF on my laptop. Let him pay the library a load more to get a printoff while I use my desktop printer. Let him go down to the post office and queue to send off his parcel to a colleague, while I email him my PDF. Let him go for it, if that appeals to him.

    But if we wouldn’t dream of reading a book like that — and one would have to be demented to do that — then let’s acknowledge what all of us know, which is that microfilms are rubbish, and apply the same logic to manuscripts.

    The bottom line is that this stuff should be on the web. Your comment sounds a bit as if you don’t want it on the web, unless it can be done incredibly expensively or corporately, which we both know it cannot. How doing it very expensively benefits anyone I do not know. I’m afraid that I really don’t understand this position at all, if I have it correctly. Such a position hurts everyone, including you. Surely? And who benefits from it? Anyone?

    PS: I won’t include the Bodleian in this condemnation, since they are clearly open to new ideas and material from their holdings is in google books. They permit users to bring in digital cameras, although so far only for printed materials. I imagine that they are trying things out, and finding out by experiment what works and what doesn’t. This manages the risk as well. It seems to me that this is the right way to go when faced with a technological revolution, and I applaud their professional attitude and imagination.

    The National Archives here in the UK also permit digital camera use, in a controlled way.

    Isn’t it all about management of risks and opportunities, in the end? We have an opportunity. We have people like the BL determined that it shall not happen. That seems wicked to me.