I have often commented on the British Library, on its greed, obscurantism and general uselessness as a public service. Nor have I any reason to suppose this worthless institution has reformed.
But for a change, thanks to Ben Blackwell, I have discovered a new service that may conceivably be useful to us all. Evidently not everyone at the BL is a fool; for this one is a very good idea indeed. This is a new service called EthOS.
EthOS is a database of UK PhD theses, rather like the UMI database in the USA. Universities with a bit of gumption contribute the theses, and you and I can download them. Yes, that’s right; you don’t have to be in further education to use this service.
Access to the theses is actually, free, or at least partially so. The BL want to charge for this. You have to “place an order” for anything you want to look at, and go through a checkout, as if you were at Amazon. They quote prices, and do everything as if this was a bookshop (!) Thank heavens Google Books didn’t engage in such a farce! Then a link is made available, and you can download it. Mind you, they’ve made such a dog’s breakfast of it that I haven’t managed to do so yet!
This is the first useful online service that the BL have ever provided for the nation. I imagine that they will screw it up. They will have an attack of the greedies, and charge for it, and it will vanish behind a network of “charges” and privileges, etc; all paid for by taxpayers, naturally. But for the moment, this is useful. Yes, really it is.
UMI is pretty useless to us all, since only universities can access the stuff without being charged pretty steep prices. But EthOS means that we can actually look at what our tax dollars are paying for in UK research.
I’m going to award this a couple of cheers. It is a Good Thing, as 1066 and all that used to put it.
Yes, they’ve mucked up the interface. Yes, they’re still salivating over the idea of charging the public for stuff the public has already paid for. Yes, it’s clunky. No-one can detest the BL as much as I do.
But the idea is fundamentally sound. This is precisely the sort of activity that the National Library of each nation should be doing; to make available easily and freely the research that we all pay for and which would otherwise languish, inaccessible, in unpublished paper theses.
There is a search facility. I tried Tertullian, and Eusebius, and up came results. But… not all our state-funded universities have cooperated. Notable absences are Oxford and Cambridge, curse them. Whether this is from obscurantism or greed I don’t know. But this service is so manifestly a sensible idea that they will have to contribute in the end. Let us hope they don’t make their participation conditional on excluding the ordinary man.
PS: I’ve found after, after scouring the help, why the thesis wasn’t available, and just said “Download file being prepared”. Apparently only theses with a little blue icon next to them in the search results are immediately available. You have to wait while the others are scanned! Of course this isn’t apparent to the newcomer and… wait for it… they make you tick a box agreeing that your idle exploratory request for a random thesis can’t be cancelled!
I wonder if they try and bill me for digitisation? If so, I look forward to them trying it on in court! Every new user will make this mistake, so I wish them luck! Bad interface design, boys, bad interface design.