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 — 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 

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.


Naked greed at the Bodleian: the August 2009 Bloodsucker award

I’m in Oxford, and have just been to Duke Humphrey’s library at the Bodleian to examine the 1648 volume of Combefis containing a fragment of Eusebius’ Quaestiones.  The reference I have is good, the book is a folio printed text, and I need copies of half a dozen pages.

But I’ve come away without any.  Why?  Because I cannot bring myself to be robbed by these greedy bastards.

The Bodleian will only do “digital scans” — i.e. photographs.  These, as we all know, are basically free.  You click a button and that is it.  Price for ‘bitonal’ – what you and I know as black-and-white — is 29p per photo, 600 dpi.  That is steep, but not impossible.  But of course when the paper is old, with black and white you get spots and wrinkles everywhere.  So that’s really no good.

The next option up is greyscale.  Of course that costs them not a penny more.  But they want, wait for it, 3.87 GBP ($6 or thereabouts) per photo.  That’s the price of changing one setting on their camera.  Greyscale would probably cover my need, but I’m not paying that.

Colour is even worse; 17.20 GBP – around $27.  Again, it costs them nothing more.

This is unconscionably greedy.  Were I of the mentality of Thomas Wise, I  think I might be minded to just tear the pages out.  I have no doubt that some readers will do just this.  Greedy libraries get damaged books, and I have seen books at the Bodleian so treated.

Apparently a certain Allan James is head of imaging, and so probably responsible.  If you know him, tell him what you think of him.

This naked greed — to the point of rendering work impossible — qualifies the Bodleian for the Bloodsucker Award, which is duly awarded to those whose lust for money is indulged to such an extent as to destroy the mission of the library.


May 2009 Bloodsucker Award – the German Bible Society

I am pleased to announce a winner for the Bloodsucker Award this month — the German Bible Society! 

Their successful entry was their emails demanding that various open-source projects which use the 10-year old morphologised Greek New Testament be abandoned, on the grounds that they “own” the text of the Greek New Testament.

When I announced this award, I described the criterion as follows:

I will award it, ad hoc, to institutions in receipt of state funding which in order to make money violate their primary directive; to make books available and promote learning.

I don’t know whether the GBS receives state money, although in Germany religious bodies often do.  But it does enjoy charitable status in order to promote learning and study of the scriptures, and so falls within the general area — abuse of public funding in order to make money instead of doing its job.


Bibliotheque National Francais – more bloodsucking

Very angry this morning with the BNF.   They’ve just demanded $30 per page for a copy of two manuscripts. 

People will recall that I ordered reproductions of these two mss from them.  They charged me $400 — a huge, bloodsucking sum, enough to win them the March 2009 Bloodsucker award.  What arrived was some incredibly cheap and nasty scans of a microfilm!!! (I nearly typed “scams” instead of “scans” – maybe I was right first time!)  Worse, the results were actually unusable, because the ends of the lines were blacked out.

Their reaction was to offer me a refund!  They don’t seem to grasp that what scholars need is copies.  As far as they are concerned, they’re just selling products.

I’ve written them a courteous but angry email.  What all this means is that I cannot obtain a reproduction of those mss.   I’m trying to get work done on al-Makin, and simply can’t obtain the manuscripts to do so!

Still, with initiatives like the Virtual Manuscript Room, soon we will all look back at this exhibition of irresponsible greed and shake our heads.


The March 2009 Bloodsucker award winner — the Bibliothèque Nationale Français

In early January I ordered images from the Bibliothèque Nationale Français of a manuscript of the unpublished 13th century Arabic Christian historian, al-Makin.  Today I received a CDROM containing two PDF’s.   The PDF’s were simply scans of a low-grade black-and-white microfilm, of about the same quality as a Google books scan.  One was 40Mb, the other 10Mb.  Together they totalled 640 images.  I also received my credit card bill; these two files cost me $400.

My feelings may be imagined.  At such prices, obtaining several manuscripts is impossible.  And… for that obscene price, could they not have photographed the things in colour?  The black and white images, of course, don’t scale.  The rubrics are lost in the text.  Quite how I print these things I do not know.

Oh yes.  Want a copy?  Well, they sent me a legal notice saying I can’t give you one.  You have to pay them again, if you want to see them.  These, remember, are publicly owned manuscripts!

This is disgusting.  So, with all these reasons in m ind, I award the Bibliothèque Nationale Français the second Bloodsucker award

I will award it, ad hoc, to institutions in receipt of state funding which in order to make money violate their primary directive; to make books available and promote learning.

Well done, chaps.  May you all rot in the hell reserved for those who knowingly obstruct the progress of learning.

My previous award was to the John Rylands Library in 2008, also for making it impossibly expensive to obtain a usable copy of a manuscript of al-Makin.

Postscript: I have now discovered that the photographs are of two-page spreads.  Most of the images have a large black band down the centre of the opening, wide enough to obscure the text on the inner margins.  Guess what?  Being black on white, this means that the ends of the words are all unreadable.  And this, for $400.  I have been forced to write back and point this out.  I may have to involve VISA, to recover money for substandard merchandise.  What’s the betting that they simply try to get me to pay yet more money?

UPDATE 6th March 2009: No reply from the BNF.  I’ve now written again and threatened (politely) to go to VISA for a refund.


Mss to go online at Manchester

A rather useless story at the BBC News Site.  Apparently the John Rylands Library — winner of this month’s Bloodsucker Award — are going to digitise some mss and place them online. 

Obviously any digitisation is welcome.  But only two cheers, unless they do the lot.  I will investigate as more news emerges.

Later: A better story at the Guardian.  Apparently they’re not going to do anything readers of this blog will care about; just 40 Middle English manuscripts; stuff like a medieval cookbook.  Rats!

The work, which will be carried out using a state-of-the-art high-definition camera, will begin next month and is due to be completed by late 2009.

Jan Wilkinson, the director of the John Rylands library, said: “The library’s Middle English manuscripts are a research resource of immense significance. Yet the manuscripts are inherently fragile, and until now access to them has been restricted by the lack of digital copies. Digitisation will make them available to everyone.

“For the first time it will be possible to compare our manuscripts directly with other versions of the texts in libraries located across the world, opening up opportunities for new areas of research. We hope that this will be the beginning of a wider digitisation programme, which will unlock the tremendous potential of our medieval manuscripts and printed books for the benefit of the academic community and the wider public.”

Well said, Jan.  Now if only you’d do something about your greedy photographic department…


The September 2008 Bloodsucker Award: the John Rylands Library

The digital camera is a blessing!  Suddenly it has become possible to take cheap good quality colour digital images.

But you wouldn’t know it, judging from the response of some libraries.  Bear in mind that a microfilm of an entire manuscript used to cost about £30 ($60).

At the moment I’m wandering around looking for manuscripts of the World Chronicle of Elmacin (Al-Makin ibn-Amid) which are complete and of which I can obtain a copy at a reasonable price.  The latter is proving a challenge!

So I’m going to institute the Bloodsucker Award.  I will award it, ad hoc, to institutions in receipt of state funding which in order to make money violate their primary directive; to make books available and promote learning.

The first recipient is the John Rylands Library in Manchester.  A truly sterling effort this one.

“We do hold the MS you enquire about Rylands Arabic MS 239 (43), The History of Ibnul-Amid, 131 leaves, 17 lines to the page. For a complete copy of this item you would need to order 132 openings to be scanned and we could provide the entire item as either jpegs or PDF. The costs for each option are below. “

Note that the PDF means low-grade scans. 

Jpeg                       PDF

132 x £3.00 = 396.00       132 x £1.50 = £198.00

Plus postage = £4.50       Plus postage = £4.50

Plus VAT of £70.09         Plus VAT of £35.44

 Total cost = £470.59       Total cost = £237.94

Double these figures for dollars.

What a fantastic effort!  For the equivalent of a £50 microfilm, charge 5 times that.  For snapping the shutter on a digital camera 113 times — perhaps 3 hours work for a technician, say £20 per hour — charge almost £500!!

Well done the John Rylands for obstructing the cause of research!  Of course the cream of the joke is that these prices don’t actually make them any money; because if you ask a million dollars, and no-one pays it, you don’t get a million dollars, you get nothing.