I was scanning an English translation of an obscure Syriac chronicle today, of which the British Library had sold me a photocopy. I was struck by the poor quality, considering the huge price they had charged. They had also kindly stamped their name on every page, and placed a copyright notice on the front, itself probably quite spurious. The comparison with Google books struck me; free, extensive, easy, as compared to costly rubbish supplied in paper format only.
It’s been awhile since I looked at the BL site. But it has not changed much! Lots of money spent on web design, but no content. And remember, ordinary British taxpayers fork out for this foolery — it isn’t free.
I then found their annual report, and their plans for 2007-8. It’s like reading something from 1985. The very idea of digitising the collection and making it available to the public doesn’t feature. Instead there’s loads of bureaucrat-speak nonsense, all of it about enhancing the enjoyment of… the staff!
The report as a whole is clearly the output of some kind of cheap video tool, full of self-flattering video clips, but light on text.
I then found the management structure. It was headed up by this Lynne Brindley, of whom I know nothing except that there has been no real progress towards making material available online while she has been Chief Executive.
A list of the roles of her direct reports tells its own story about priorities — “Finance and Coporate Services”; “Strategic Marketing & Communications”; “Human Resources”; “e-Strategy and Information Systems”, which is about keeping their PC’s working, not about delivering content to us; “Scholarship and Collections”, at long last; “Operations and Services”.
Only two of those 6 have any respectable claim to be priorities of this organisation. Nowhere in the whole report could I find any indication of any intention to serve the 99% of the population who do not work in the British Library or its immediate vicinity.
Surely the time has come to ask why we, as taxpayers, fund this organisation? What, specifically, does it deliver of benefit to the population of the UK? It seems to concentrate on its own staff.
The internet exists. We’re all using Google books. The catalogues of the Syriac mss are online — although not at the BL, of course! Brigham Young University did it instead. But the BL ignores it all.
Lynne Brindley needs to be sacked. Her reign has been a catalogue of wasted opportunities to develop a truly National library, in the way that the French National Library have done. The British Library needs reform, or else abolition. After all, if it is not useful to us all, why pay for it?