The British Library — whoring the national library?

They say a leopard cannot change its spots, and too often, this is so.  Over the last few years I have documented various outrageous examples of greed and cynicism by the British Library. 

The BL is, remember, a body entirely funded by the money of others.  That money is not given freely.  It is exacted by the state under threat of imprisonment from people who (in the main) cannot use the library or its facilities.  

Now there is an argument for a national library, as a centre of learning, funded by taxes in order to benefit everyone.  In the age of the internet, it could and should act like Google Books, placing books online in PDF’s to disseminate knowledge.

But that is not what the BL does.  Instead, those who control it keep trying to use the internet to get money, rather than to serve the nation.   Unlike the internet model, where everyone gives away content, they keep trying to exploit it commercially. 

Today I read this heading:  Put a thousand books from the British Library on your iPad for free.  Well, it’s not much, really — think of Archive.org — but it’s something.  Although… why an iPad?

I just love finding apps like this, and I think you’ll be excited too. The British Library has released 1000 books from its 19th Century collection into a free iPad app that includes novels, historical works, poetry, philosophy and scientific books.

The books have been scanned in high resolution and color so you can see the engraved illustrations, the beauty of the embossed covers, along with maps and even the texture of the paper the books were printed on.

You can search the collection, browse titles by subject, and even read commentary on some of the titles. The books can be downloaded for reading offline. …

The app only works in portrait mode, but some of the illustrations are oriented in landscape view. …

Yup.  It’s not a set of books.  It’s an “app”.  In other words, the books are locked inside some proprietary software.  As soon as I saw that bit, I knew.  I could smell it.  And sure enough…

Although the app is free, the British Library plans to charge for an enhanced version of 60,000 titles later this year.

You bet they do. 

Let us thank heavens for Google Books.  Thank heavens for Archive.org. 

And a raspberry to these loathsome little civil servants, selling what is not theirs to sell, in an age when even ordinary chaps like me give content away.

I award them the Bloodsucker award for June 2011.

9 Responses to “The British Library — whoring the national library?”


  1. stephan huller

    I agree with you wholeheartedly Roger. I can understand that a publishing company is entitled to make money from a product they have recently cultivated or promoted. But this notion that libraries have to charge us fees to keep themselves solvent into the future is something different especially with the advent of digitalized books and the internet. Do we really need libraries to act as middle-men every time we wish to access documents? I am sure no one would argue we need to preserve the original manuscripts of works. But do we need them to charge us large sums of money to look at books which for all intents and purpose could be set up online and basically reduce our need for them down to almost nothing? Of course not. They are just acting like unneeded intermediaries.

  2. Wieland

    I have similar experiences with the BL.
    Completely useless.
    Never ever I received a response when I wrote to someone working there. I also made many suggestions regarding mss, but never got a response.
    Well, yes, a long while ago I got a typewritten letter from T.C. Skeat regarding Egerton 2.

  3. Roger Pearse

    I think they have always existed mainly for the benefit of those who work there. The rest of us are basically just tolerated. It needs thorough reform. I did approach a government minister in the last government, but just got the brush off.

    I envy you a letter from T. C. Skeat, tho. An impressive scholar.

  4. Roger Pearse

    Well said, Stephan.

  5. Matthew Hamilton

    As a former academic librarian who is disgusted the way libraries are going, here is an alternative view:
    If a for-profit business has different product lines that are loosing money and others that are making money, they will close down the loosing product lines to ensure a healthy profit margin.
    If a not-for-profit library has different product lines that are loosing money and other that are making money – do we really want them to decrease the costs to us to access their profitable product lines? Think about it. If they do, how will they cross subsidise the other products? To remain solvent they will deaccession thousands of books to the local dump, they will stop buying books of interest only to the sort of odd people who read patristics and focus their purchases into economics-business-law-engineering-science-etc, the list goes on.
    And unfortunately we are already heading down the road where libraries are becoming more self reliant in funding, having to be leaner bodies within what are almost for-profit “public” universities – in short, libraries are for-profit businesses

  6. Roger Pearse

    Interesting as always Matthew. But this more or less assumes that not-for-profit organisations operate like businesses. Businesses, however, are not paid for by our taxes. In other words, the whole set up is going down the wrong path.

  7. Dirk Jongkind

    I think this is a little harsh on my former employer :). They have a very non-elitist accession policy (everyone who can make a good case has access to all the materials), and they have been instrumental in ensuring that all the Codex Sinaiticus material is available free online. Without the BL policies much more stuff would be locked behind pay-walls all over the Web as there is now.

    There is a difference between what we would wish to be the case, and reality nowadays, but let’s face it, we have made a lot of progress over the last 10 years or so.

  8. Wieland

    I don’t think that is correct.
    The Sinaiticus images are still not available. I can only view them online using a strange annoying interface.
    I asked several times if it is possible to get the images as JPG or TIFF on DVD, but I never got a reply.

  9. Roger Pearse

    Hi Dirk,

    Thanks for your note! Ah, so your soul belongs to the Dark Side…. I should have known… :-)

    I don’t want to write a list of things I dislike about the BL. It all comes down to a strong feeling that the institution functions as if it exists for the benefit of those running it, not those who use it, and still less those who pay for it. This comes out in so many areas.

    Should we really praise the BL because it lets some people in? It’s not a privately funded place, in which case that would be a reasonable view. No, you and I pay a lot of money every year to support a National Library. To let some people in … isn’t that what it is supposed to do? And it is very nasty for ordinary people to deal with when so doing, in my experience.

    Certainly it is a good thing to have Sinaiticus online. More so the 250-odd Greek manuscripts, funded by the Niarchos foundation. I don’t agree with the practice of hiding them inside a proprietary viewer — they should be accessible in PDF, being public property –, but this is a question of detail. I approve of what Juan Garces and his team have done. But … they’re the only bunch I can approve of.

    Look at the post again, and the issue that drew my ire. They’re selling books, not serving them. That’s what they always do.

    They make so little available. The web has been available for 15 years, yet they will not make books accessible online. They won’t even do what the BNF do and scan their own catalogues of oriental mss and put them online!

    And every time something does go online, they look for a way to extract some tiny little profit for themselves, and thereby hide everything away behind paywalls. If the Americans had taken this view, the web would not exist.

    No offence, but I don’t think they’re doing what a National Library should do. And since we pay for the show, we should say so.

    Sorry if that sounds like a rant. But seriously — the BL is not fit for purpose.

    All the best,

    Roger Pearse



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