Library of the absurd

Via Philobiblon comes word that the British Library is facing steep budget cuts, and may have to start charging scholars for access, and/or close its fabled newspaper collection at Colindale, among other measures. See here and here. As I'm not a British tax-payer, I don't really have the right to complain, but it would be distressing to see those who do (and, entirely coincidentally, those foreigners who don't!) lose access to Britain's heritage for the sake of a measly few million pounds. At the very least they should digitise Colindale's holdings before closing it down!

I hope it's just a scare campaign to minimise the funding damage, but perhaps it's one that should work.

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16 thoughts on “Library of the absurd

  1. At £100m a year the British Library is probably one of the most cost-effective tools for propagating the British Way and Purpose that the country possesses (exceeded only by the BBC). We've now spent about £5,000m in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hate to put it this way, but I can't help but wonder which has been the better deal for the taxpayer.

  2. Dan Todman

    Hear hear. As has been noted, it looks like a canny bit of publicity to pre-empt such drastic cuts, but it would be bloody awful if it happened. Although making universities pay for undergraduate entry _would_ mean that people didn't use it for revising and that you could get a seat when your teaching commitments keep you busy until the afternoon.

  3. Also, thinking Airmindedly, if they closed down Colindale there wouldn't be any excuse to go and visit the RAF Museum in Hendon, just 10-15 minutes walk up the road.

  4. Undergraduates should never have been admitted to the BL. They are a huge drain on space and resources. In these times of financial problems their presence cannot be justified. (And it amazes me how they ever got in - I've always had terrible trouble proving my bona fide researcher status to the over-zealous admissions staff!)

    The UK's second largest copyright library, the National Library of Scotland, still does not admit undergraduates (I believe). They have always been adamant that they do not exist to plug gaps in University library provision. Quite rightly so. The result: it's a great place to work - well-staffed, efficient, friendly and full of grown-ups using it for a specific reason, not just as a more comfortable reference library.

    Colindale is the most badly-run major archive in London: notoriously unhelpful staff in an unsuitable building in a terrible location. However, I believe the problems there reflect the worst ongoing intellectual snobbery over the relative value of mere 'ephemera' such as newspapers and periodicals. Those who run the place suffer under the 'Cinderella' status accorded to them.

    Studying and researching in London has many attractions. However, I have long since classed both the BL and Colindale as my archives of last resort. I will go anywhere else first to try find sources. (This is particularly true of Colindale, which even my most 'dusty' archival colleagues agree could bring out suicidal tendancies in anyone). There's a hideous London academic myth that if you're not in the BL you're not working. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you're working in the contemporary period, I can give you a long list of far more productive places to research, run by happier and more helpful staff.

    But should they have more money? Yes, of course - especially if it improves the unfortunate experiences I have consistently had in trying to use them.

  5. Chris Williams

    I have a plan to open a flash coffeeshop in that row of shops opposite Colindale. I reckon I could clean up. All I need is a couple of hundred grand and an experienced manager to do all the work, and I'd be rich, do you hear me, rich!

    Despite the lack of coffee shop, I find Colindale a fine place because in the past I've gone there just to read _The Eagle_. While being paid. How cool is that?

    Jack's right about undergraduates. Chucking them out would solve half the BL's problems. Except Open University ones, of course, who have nowhere else to go.

  6. I've also never understood why Colindale doesn't hold 'Time Out' - essential for my period and type of work. But the very helpful Westminster Reference Library will bring you bound, printed copies at any time. No membership required: no grim trip on Northern Line.

    But I agree about OU students and the BL, Chris. They should also get free, automatic (reference) access all year round to every UK University Library - not least because they have to work much harder to juggle all commitments and are usually, as a result, much more 'well-rounded' graduates....

    Jack McGowan
    BA (Open University)

  7. Post author

    Undergrads! Pah! You should count yourselves lucky that the BL isn't infested with high school students, like the SLV here is. Don't they have anywhere else not to study in? Mind you, it does give me the chance to mentally look down my nose at them, as I push a trolley-load of dusty old journals in between the clusters of teenagers fiddling with their mobile phones -- call yourselves students? I'm a proper scholar, I am. Real serious, like.

  8. I refuse to feel any pity for the British Library until they lift their ban on digital cameras. Copying manuscripts out by hand is just so last century!

    I can't help wondering why there's such a difference between the BL and the PRO. Obviously there's a difference the nature of their collections, but that doesn't entirely explain why the underfunded and mismanaged BL lurches from crisis to crisis while the PRO, while not perfect, is way ahead of any other archive or library I've ever been to.

  9. Good point re digital photos. Can't think of any other major archive which doesn't allow them by now. Indeed, one of my main gripes with Colindale is exceptional cost of very poor quality photocopies - and even worse quality copies from microfilm.

    PRO is very efficient. Full of retired people researching 'family history' of course, but not, I think, heaving with undergrads (unless they are looking for something very specific.) Lest anyone argues 'but how will undergrads learn and progress unless given access to The Nation's Treasures at the BL'?' - give them a day pass for a specific search, and no more.

    And, contrary though I sometimes am, isn't deification of an institution which supposedly houses The Nation's Treasures the very problem? It's a resource: it should be a working archive for working researchers to use, not a cathedral, or a essential sight to be 'done' by Japanese or US tourists who think it's where Marx wrote (when they actually want to be at the British Museum). Enough with the whole 'symbol of nationhood' sub-text which permeates the place. First sign of intellectual death.

    Here endeth rant. :)

  10. Post author

    How depressing. If the BL is as bad as all that, I may have to switch to doing a PhD on New Zealand history ...

    Personally I don't care who has or manages the stuff in the BL, as long as it's maintained and accessible. That's the real point at issue here, it seems to me. Maybe it could be better managed, but at least it exists. For the moment. But certainly I agree that the library should be there to be used, not gawked at!

    I knew they didn't allow digital cameras, but I assumed this was because, as a library, they don't actually own the copyrights to most of the stuff they hold? Whereas at a regular archive that's generally not the case. Even the uni library here is fussy about using digital cameras in the reading room -- they wanted me to fill out the standard form used for requesting photocopies, and write down how many pages I photographed. Or it could just be that the librarian on the desk that day was not au fait with the latest technologies ...

  11. Chris Williams

    I'm pretty happy with the service at St Pancras. Beats Colindale, obviously, but there's not much to choose between it and the PRO, in my opinion. The PRO has cooler stuff (Once upon a time a couple of bullets rolled out of a document I was looking at. Apparently someone was once confronted by a Luger...) but it's out in the sticks, and the BL's building is bananas good. Perhaps too good. It certainly cost enough, but the Biblioteque Nationale pips it to the "1990s central library white elephant" prize.

  12. The PRO makes you sign a copyright form, and there are draconian restrictions on what you can actually do with the photos, even if the documents are out of copyright, but it obviously does help that most of their stuff is covered by Crown Copyright and that it's mostly masses of banal administrative records. I suppose things are different for the BL because they have books as well as manuscripts (although I think the PRO lets you use cameras in the library as long as you stick to fair use, same as with the photocopiers) and they have more private collections of manuscripts relating to famous people. On the other hand, some of the BL MSS that I'm most interested in are pretty much the same kind of records that I've looked at in the PRO, created by the same organisations, and presumably also in the public domain, Crown/Parliamentary copyright having expired 125 years after creation.

    I've always found BL staff unfriendly and intimidating and PRO staff friendly and helpful, but maybe that's just me.

    The Liddle Archive at Leeds is even better for cool stuff. I'll never forget being allowed to hold the German chainmail armour (it was damn heavy!). That was pre-Dunblane, so I'm not sure if they're allowed real guns any more. It would be a shame if they've had to deactivate them or get rid of them.

  13. Reto

    I agree that it might just be a publicity stunt to prevent future cuts - and let's hope it is. However, the whole saga looks much more like yet another manifestation of the present government's philistinism. In new labour minds "Education, education, education" is all too often equated with "science, technology and business studies" or anything that will get people into jobs as quickly as possible. And obviously you don't need the BL to achieve such an objective. Likewise, in new labour speak, "knowledge" simply means a skill that is useful in economic life and therefore contributes to the public good (very) narrowly defined - again, much of the more serious schoarship going on in an institution like the BL is not going to directly contribute to this.

    Depressing really, but then Blair will soon be gone and all will be much better .... maybe.

  14. I’ve always found BL staff unfriendly and intimidating and PRO staff friendly and helpful, but maybe that’s just me.

    I've had a mixture of good and bad experiences at both. I wouldn't generalize about institutional personality from a few personal incidents.

  15. Coda, in the name of fair representation - I actually made one of my rare visits to the BL on Saturday and was extremely pleasantly surprised: relatively few undergrads to kick out of the way; empty seat located immediately; books waiting; _three _ members of staff _smilling_ and all eager to help me!

    This is unlike anything I've experienced before. I've resolved that maybe I should try it more often. I'm going back tomorrow. This could become a habit.

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