EthOS – the first useful service from the British Library

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make available easily and freely the research that we all pay for and which would otherwise languish, inaccessible, in unpublished paper theses.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.

16 thoughts on “EthOS – the first useful service from the British Library

  1. Roger, sometimes I think you and I are the last ones who’ll take care to quote the Sacred Tradition of our Holy Fathers — meaning 1066 and All That, of course.

  2. I’m glad that EThOS isn’t entirely useless – I’ve been quite involved in getting the service setup, although I don’t work for the British Library – the service is a collaboration between the British Library and UK Universities.

    The problem with making the texts available for immediate download is that, of course, most of them are not available in digital format in the first place. With funding from the JISC (http://www.jisc.ac.uk) about 10,000 theses have been digitised to pre-populate the system, but this is, of course, just a small percentage of the overall number of PhDs.

    Who pays for digitisation depends on the arrangements in place with the awarding institutions (i.e. the university who has the original copy of the PhD). In some cases the university will have agreed to pay for any digitisation that needs doing for their material – in this case the cost to the requester is zero. If the university has not agreed to cover the cost, then the requester can decide to pay if they so wish – but this would be clear before they made the request.

    Where universities are not yet members of the service the project team is keen to get them to take part – and we have continuing dialogue with them.

    Finally – thank you for the feedback – we are collecting feedback as we get it, and hope to see the service develop over time in response.

  3. Thank you for your comments, which are very helpful. Glad that you posted. One reason why I hate the BL as much as I do is the impression of a self-serving group who don’t give a damn about anyone else. As I remarked, this is a good service, and can only get better. The site seems to work, which is always a good start! This service helps to upskill the nation; always a good idea in time of recession.

    May I offer a couple of further thoughts? There’s a fundamental problem. The site, in my opinion, is wrongly structured. The search facility is rightly at the top (and works well; I searched for Tertullian, then for Eusebius, then for Tacitus).

    But there is no way that I, as a user, want to go through all that frightening-looking stuff about “ordering”, complete with financial stuff. That puts people off.

    What I think that the site should give is a list of results, with links to those items which are available online. Think of Google books, and its display of results; full view, etc? That’s the right approach. Make the theses linkable with a unique URL as well, so people can reference them.

    For the others, then by all means we need further menus. Some link saying “request upload of thesis” would cover it. On the next screen, tell people what this means — that some offline process has to happen — and ask them if they want to request it be digitised. Tell them that, if this would cost money, they will be told before they are committed.

    As it stands, the site seems upside down to me. Everything is predicated on extracting money, when actually there is a lot of free stuff. And… most theses are not worth paying for. Few people will.

    I do like, tho, the idea that we *can* pay to get a thesis digitised for the benefit of all, which might otherwise never be put online. I like that a lot. Most theses probably have one person who is interested in them in the world, at any one time (maybe not that). In the same vein, perhaps thesis authors should be able to upload? It would save you money, and they merely sign some form online about copyright.

    Oh, and I saw some strange message saying “you can only download a thesis once”?!?! Hey, I hope my visitors don’t just access the page once! No, let them read and read! I do understand where this is coming from — out of our absurd copyright laws. But it’s not how things are done online, is it, and needs to change.

    Just my thoughts, but I bet everyone else reacts the same. Still, stick with it. This is a great idea, and, you realise, will be the first useful contribution to the web from the UK.

    Do let me know if I can help in any way. I’m busy, but always have time to help projects get some momentum, if only as an idiot user.

  4. Thanks Roger – I know what you mean about the structure – and of course copyright – a lot of the issues around the provision of theses relate directly to copyright – and agreeing to various things is part of this (which is why you can’t just access the thesis directly)

    However, the system is designed to work with Universities own local systems where we expect to see authors deposit digital copies of their work – especially as we go forward many Universities are making electronic deposit mandatory (and also changing regulations that students agree to, to ensure copyright doesn’t interfere with the ability to distribute the work online). For example, in the case of my own institution the integration is already done, and when a new thesis is added to http://spiral.imperial.ac.uk, the BL system automatically picks it up – and this will cover any theses awarded by Imperial College from now on.

    I’ve put some detail on my blog http://www.meanboyfriend.com/overdue_ideas/2009/01/a-gathering-place-for-uk-research.html

    Don’t worry – we’ll keep at this, and I agree, it is an extremely important contribution from the UK – although not perfect I have to admit to some pride in being part of it!

  5. Yes, I thought our unfit-for-public-purpose copyright laws might be part of it!

    Rather than making people sign something every time they click a link, why not just get a general signature when they register? Make the search results generally accessible, certainly the contents google-able, but to access the full thing you need to register. That’s what normal people do.

    As we go forward, all these issues will be resolved, I’m sure. A momentum builds up, and the fuddy-duddy problems get swept away. Getting the universities to require deposit is the right answer. The arrangement for Imperial College is exactly what all institutions need to do.

    In a year or two all this will be taken for granted, but yes, this is a good thing to be involved with; even a CV-enhancing thing to be involved with!

  6. Good stuff, and I think we’ll all be interested to hear about it. I think it’s early days yet for feedback, you know. The info is only just starting to go around the blogosphere, and you may get more info over the coming weeks.

  7. See also this post on EThos.

    I’m playing with the search at the moment. No Syriac stuff online, although there is an unscanned and unpublished edition and translation of a text attributed to Sergius the Stylite! My mouth watered at that one, I must say!

    I then searched “Arabic”, since “Arabic Christian” brought back nothing. But… why are the results broken into groups of 10, forcing me to click to see the next tiny group? Give me the choice to see all 200, and skim down them. We all have broadband, after all! Zvab.com allow you to choose how many you want; 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 — and so should this.

  8. The search has some peculiarities. Searching for ‘edition and translation’ (no quotes) brings back one row. Searching for ‘edition translation’ brings back loads, including several containing both words, and ‘and’. The help doesn’t indicate how you search for things using ‘x’ AND ‘y’, or ‘x’ AND NOT ‘y’ — important for those people trying to exclude common but irrelevant words.

    Likewise a search on ‘Syriac’ brings back results, one of them a text “with translation”; but a search on ‘ “with translation” ‘ (including quotes) doesn’t bring back the result in the Syriac results.

  9. Mind you, there are some gems in this. Who knew that a translation of part of Oribasius medical works existed?! Found by search on ‘ translation commentary ‘. Likewise a translation of Ctesias Indica, book 2 of Prudentius Contra Symmachum, 200 lines of Jacob of Serugh On the deluge (bound to be tedious – boy did that student get a rough job!).

  10. I’m getting error messages as well: “There was a problem adding this item to your basket – please try again. If this problem persists, please contact us at ethos-help@bl.uk“. I’ve had errors on searching when going back from p.4 to p.3 of the results too.

  11. Although this doesn’t tackle the issues you are raising here, you may also be interested to know that if you search the British Library catalogue, where it is relevant you can link from the catalogue to download/request on EThOS – for example go to http://catalogue.bl.uk, click ‘Search the Integrated Catalogue’. Search for “Lambden, Stephen P.”

    Click on the title to view the full record, and then click the ‘Get It’ button (above the record on the right). You will get a menu with an option to Get the Full Text from EThOS – click ‘Go’ and you will be taken to this result in the EThOS interface, and you can make a request.

    Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to (yet) be a way of narrowing down your search in the BL catalogue to just material available via EThOS (which is a shame, as generally the search interface to the catalogue is more powerful/flexible than that to EThOS as things currently stand).

  12. Interesting – a great idea. I have to say that I myself never use the BL catalogue, as it seems awkward and people like me can’t get hold of any of the books in the BL anyway unless they live in Bloomsbury. But what about COPAC? They’re easy people to deal with, and that might really be very useful.

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