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The Digital Mousetrap

Neil Smith

Paper presented at the UKSG/NAG Conference, Spiders or flies: Managing electronic information in libraries, Oxfordshire, May 1997

In terms of national developments, the UK has several initiatives which have the use of digital information at their core. At the root of all these develop-ments are issues of policy and economics. It seems that libraries will be faced with additional costs of services based upon digital materials while maintaining traditional services, and that the users of information will increasingly be faced with charged services to ensure sustainability. The paper reviews these developments, with a more detailed look at the British Library�s plans, and attempts to identify some common threads and preoccupations as seen from the UK perspective, such as universality and access, complementarity and competition, project funding and sustainability, and the relationship between public good and charging for services.


Much has been written over the past five years about the impact of electronic or digital information on libraries. The literature would indicate that an enormous amount of research - in the broad sense - is going on, as the various players in the information food chain� find their feet. Revolution is clearly in the air but so far the barricades have not been raised. However, there are considerable hurdles for all the players, centring around the economic models of sustainable service, intellectual property rights, and access. There are now several substantial programmes in the UK which are seeking to address these broad issues, and increasingly, there is a new political context within which they will operate.

Electronic information is becoming embedded in public policy at very many levels in the UK and in the developing countries. The G7 Information Society initiatives are having some effect on domestic political agendas where these topics might have been absent before. Library and information services must fit into this new �wired society� scenario even though librarians and information managers have been wrestling with the issues for some time. It may be ironic that, at the time that these issues surface politically, the electronic information agenda will change.

The theme of this paper is the management of electronic information in terms of the provision of access in a national context. It will: look at the broader picture of the G7 and European Union Information Society activities andhow these are reflected in the Government�s Information Society Initiative and �IT for All� programmes; take a brief look at the eLib programme, the Information for All Millennium bid; the Public Library Review, Reading the Future and the 20-20 Vision of the Library and Information Commission; and give a detailed description of the British Library�s Digital Library Programme.

The paper reviews these developments and attempts to identify some common threads and preoccupations - such as universality and access, complementarity and competition, project funding and sustainability, and the relationship between public good and charging for services.

The broader picture

I want to examine first the broader context of how governments internationally are viewing the conjunction of electronic information, IT and networking to deliver better services to the citizen and to regenerate and revitalise industry and commerce.

For many people, the serious debate on this agenda began with the US National Information Infrastructure (NII) initiatives in 1992-3. The US administration is still firmly involved in new initiatives to make the NII a reality. The latest being the Next Generation Internet programme (NGI), a mixture of government seed-corn funding and regulatory framework, with private sector investment and operation to follow. The NGI vision is that:

"In the 21st Century, the Internet will provide a powerful and versatile environment for business, education, culture, and entertainment. Sight, sound, and even touch will be integrated through powerful computers, displays, and networks. People will use this environment to shop, bank, study, entertain, work, and visit with each other. Whether at home, at the office, or on travel, the environment will be the same. Privacy, security, and reliability will be built in. The customer will be able to chose among different levels of service with varying prices. Benefits of this environment will include a more agile economy, a greater choice of places to live or work, easyaccess to life-long learning, and better opportunity to participate in the community, the nation, and the world." [2]

The US entrepreneurial spirit has also exported its NII vision to become the GII - the Global Information Infrastructure. These ideas have been taken up by the G7 countries and by the European Commission. The result is a series of Information Society projects which have the broad aims of making the most of IT for business, education, healthcare, and to make government more accessible to the citizen. The G7 has established a trans-national top-level group of 11 projects [3] (including the Bibliotheca Universalis digital library project), plus associated national Information Society Initiatives. In the UK, the Information Society Initiative [4] was launched by the DTI in 1996 and includes a small series of other programmes such as �IT for All� [5]. Within �IT f or All� are included both the programme and the Public Library Review.

The Labour Party document on their IT policy, Communicating Britain�s Future, follows a now familiar line on the benefits for society to be gained from the presence of an information superhighway ubiquitous in terms of geographic and social reach to provide universal access. These are some key points of the document:

  • The network will be provided by BT, other telephony providers and the cable TV companies. The document goes on to say that "people do not buy wires; they buy programmes, services and information"
  • " the cornerstone of this public access network will be the public library". Labour says it will "insist that the providers of the infrastructure automatically put a feed into every public library in the area they are covering".
  • The document sees that "protection of copyright will be essential to facilitate content provision on the new networks" and that there "must be a proper legal mechanism for securing copyright to electronic material, and charging for its use". There is a recognition that as with current �fair us�, "there must be some provision for a right to copy under similar terms across the electronic media".
  • On content, the document encourages Lottery funding for a "Millennium Archive" to put into digital form - "initially on CD-ROM" - material from "our great collections of national significance", including the British Library. A mix of Lottery funding and private sector money is envisaged in order to achieve "free supply to every school and public library in the country"

Whatever one�s view of these global activities, it is clear that they will not go away and that the climate they are setting will impact on libraries. The library and information community, therefore, has a new opportunity to both benefit from and influence developing policy.

Public libraries

I would now like to briefly look at two major recent initiatives in the area of making information in electronic form available to users of public libraries: the Information for All Millennium Fund bid and Reading the future, the DNH Public Library Review.

I have already referred to the last government�s Information Society Initiative; the following is a quote at its launch from Virginia Bottomley:

"New technology provides unprecedented opportunities to increase access for all to the wealth of material in our museums, galleries and libraries. IT can link our heritage to our future."

Reading the Future does indeed posit a central role for IT - it is after all part of the Information Society Initiative and IT for All. Among its 20 key points are:

"[6] Public libraries can deliver the benefits of new technology to the wider population. The digitisation of material is already under way for many texts."

"[5] Public libraries will benefit from that part of the �300 million a year of National Lottery funding that the Government plans to direct towards the wider introduction of information and communication technology after the Millennium."

"[15] Public libraries should increase financial and other support from outside the public sector."

The basis of public library funding from the public purse will not change. Local authorities will still determine the level of library service funding from their block grant. As we all know, the Millennium Commission rejected the Information for All bid - partly on the grounds that it was not distinctive enough. The rejection does, of course, get to the real point - funding. The estimate for connecting all public libraries was around �100 million; many of the players agree on the need for such a network, but there is no agreement on how to pay for it. In the Public Library Review, DNH asked the Library and Information Commission to report in July this year on ways in which the funding might be found and on a great many other issues concerning the use of digital information in libraries. Reading the Future raises the post-Millennium possibility of a new IT fund from which "public libraries could benefit". This seems to put building the public library network off the agenda (of at least the current Government) until the year 2000 and after.

The Library and Information Commission�s 20-20 Vision statement articulates its view of the value of library and information services and sets an agenda for the Commission to pursue with the library and information community and with Government. In the context of digital information services, two statements seem to me to be significant:

"a holistic rather than sectoral approach is necessary in order to realise fully the potential value of library and information services in society."

"there will be a digital library collection coordinated nationally/internationally embracing the world�s knowledge and creativity in which the UK�s heritage of intellectual property will be globally available in digital form"

The e-Lib Programme

The history and provenance of the e-Lib Programme is well-known and documented, and so only a very brief overview is presented here. eLib was established in 1994 under the auspices of the Higher Education Funding Councils� (HEFC) Joint InformationSystems Committee to implement many of the information technology recommendations of the Libraries Review Group chaired by Sir Brian Follett. The programme has a full time Programme Director, funding of �15m, consists of sixty projects and a number of additional supporting studies, and is due to end in 1998.

The recent Tavistock Institute evaluation of e-Lib gives the Programme�s characteristics as:

  • an emphasis on learning, mobilisation and catalytic effects,
  • a management strategy which is both directive and consultative, and
  • a conception of electronic information which goes beyond library provision to include elements of scholarly communication, teaching and learning.

The e-Lib programme, with 60 projects, is a broad one and one that could be characterised as �let a 1000 flowers bloom� - as indeed was the British Library�s Initiatives for Access programme of networking and digitisation pilots and demonstrators. As with the Library�sInitiatives for Access programme, e-Lib is looking for sustainability of services and transferability of findings, and all projects need to develop business plans and exit strategies to move on from the fixed-period project funding regime. It would seem - as an outsider to e-Lib - that there might be three options for the projects:

  • some will come to an end, and their findings will be disseminated for future reference;
  • JISC may take on the support of some of the projects as ongoing services for the UK HE community;
  • some might develop into charged services and could be accessible to other sectors.

It is very likely that some of the services emerging from the eLib project funding phase will be significant services for the whole HE community. It also seems likely that these services will wish to play a part in the wider national picture, such as in document supply. One key issue here is the extent to which JISC might continue to underwrite services which aim to develop on a charged basis. The assumption could be that JISC would not see its remit extending to what would be the subsidising of those services to, for example, the public library sector. Clearly, if JISC did not underwrite these services, then we could look forward to those services being available, priced on a true cost recovery basis, to the users of the public libraries and others.

British Library developments

I want to concentrate now on two major related developments at the British Library which will enable us to provide access to electronic content alongside our traditional collection materials. These are the proposal for the extension of legal deposit and the Digital Library Programme.

Extension of legal deposit

Legal deposit is the arrangement whereby publishers of UK printed publications are required under the 1911 Copyright Act to deposit one copy of every publication with the British Library and, on request, to any of the other five deposit libraries in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The purpose of legal deposit is to maintain the national archive of UK publications for posterity.

With the developemnt of new publication media, there is a severe risk that without an extension of legal deposit to publication media other than print, the comprehensive nature of the national archive will not be maintained. In the light of this, the British Library has led a national initiative for a change in the legal deposit law to cover digital media. The DNH issued a consultation paper [6] in February this year, asking for views on how deposit of digital media can work, what the implications are for publishers, and what are the costs for the publisers and the taxpayer.

The extension of legal deposit is an essential element in the British Library�s digital library programme, given the Library�s statutory duty to maintain a comprehansive collection of materials which forms the national published archive.

The Digital Library

What is the digital library?

The Digital Library is the widely accepted term describing the use of digital technologies to acquire, store, preserve and provide access to information and material originally published in digital form or digitised from existing print, audio-visual and other forms.

First of all, I would like to stress the goal of our Digital Library plans. It is:

to improve, for all our users, access to the British Library�s collection, however it might develop in the future.

The Library sees the Digital Library development as vital to its future. We wish to make our collection more widely known and more widely accessible by exploiting the opportunities provided by the use of digital technologies and networking. We want to make our collection available to an expanding, world-wide community of academics, business people, and other researchers of all kinds, wherever they happen to be working. In this way we might hope to perpetuate the spirit of the founders of the national collection established by the 1753 British Museum Act as "For publick use to all posterity ... by all studious and curious persons". The first �statutes and rules� published in 1759, determined that the collection should be available "for the use of learned and studious men, both natives and foreigners, in their researches into the several parts of knowledge".

The potential these technologies hold both for improving access to the Library�s holdings and for developing new services, together with the need to extend the Library�s collection coverage to encompass digital media, in the interests of ensuring the continuing comprehensiveness of the collection, are of critical importance to the future of the British Library.

Our priorities

The Library�s priorities for digital library developments include:

  • improved access to the Library�s historical holdings through services to the world-wide research community, schools and universities, and the general public;
  • the expansion of its UK and international document supply services through article alerting and improved delivery from a digital store, and links to other digital stores maintained elsewhere;
  • the expansion of patent services;
  • the extension of legal deposit to digital media.

The achievement of the digital library will be more than a programme for delivering services to our remote users. While it is true that we will be able to provide such users with a new range of services, we also wish to enable our reading room users, in the new St Pancras building and in our other reading rooms, to have full access to the complete range of materials in the Library�s collection, digital or otherwise. The digital library will also provide us with benefits in terms of the conservation and preservation of our collection, particularly items which are fragile, of high-value, or are heavily-used , through the use of digital surrogates. It is also significant, however, that this approach will help us move towards one of our major strategic objectives - the realisation of a single collection, whether acquired through legal deposit or purchase and whether stored at Boston Spa or in London. Finally, it will provide us with the technical means to accommodate material added to our collection through the extension of the statutory deposit legislation to non-print materials.

The digital library is, therefore, an integral part of the Library�s overall vision of the way it will in future fulfil its responsibilities as the national library of the United Kingdom. As Brian Lang, the Library�s Chief Executive, said in his Introduction to the British Library Information Systems Strategy:

"We do not envisage an exclusively digital library. We are aware that some people feel that digital materials will predominate in libraries of the future. Others anticipate that the impact will be slight. In the context of the British Library, printed books, manuscripts, music, sound recordings and all the other existing materials in the collection will always retain their central importance, and we are committed to continuing to provide, and to improve, access to these in our reading rooms. The importance of digital materials will, however, increase. " [7]

What we are working towards

By the year 2000, we expect that the British Library will be an international centre of expertise in the use of digital materials, as well as a major component within a global digital library. We will simultaneously provide access to a wide range of electronic materials produced outside the Library and make the Library�s collections and catalogues available in electronic form.

Key elements of a digital library, which we hope will be in place by the year 2000, are as follows:

  • the collection of a wide variety of materials in digital form, either through purchase, licence agreements or by legal deposit;
  • the provision of information about the Library�s services and collections to remote users over electronic networks;
  • access to BL electronic services by remote users and access to remote sources by BL readers and staff through integrated gateway services;
  • commercial services which are able to provide electronic surrogates, whether text, images or sound, of items in the Library�s collection;
  • a variety of electronic publications in a number of media, published particularly over networks and on CD-ROM, which will exploit the potential of digital technologies to provide new means of exploring and accessing items in the Library�s collection;
  • integrated access in the Reading Rooms to a wide range of electronic products in a variety of media (via networks, on CD-ROM, etc.) of research value;
  • the use of networking and digital technologies to support and enhance all aspects of the Library�s basic operational services;
  • the use of networking and digital technologies to facilitate closer co-operation with other bodies;
  • the growth of expertise within the Library for the application of new technologies to library activities and bibliographical research of all kinds.

Three critical principles

The Library considers there to be three principles guiding its digital library developments:

The digital collection may be created and produced in a variety of different places, but will be accessible as if it were a single entity

In the new digital library world, two new tenets will be central - that a library�s digital �collection� will comprise material from a variety of sources, and that the user must be presented with an homogeneous view of those disparate sources. The sources of the digital collection will comprise material digitised from the library�s analogue originals; digital materials added to the collection through purchase - initially in CD-ROM form; and material to which access rights have been acquired, but which reside on systems outside the direct control of the library and which are accessed via global networks. A major service aim for the library must be that the user is presented with a view of this varied collection as if it were a single entity.

The digital collection will be organised, categorised and indexed for easier access than is possible from its original point of production.

Fundamental to the use of any collection is the catalogue. New digital materials will pose new questions to the cataloguing community. The cataloguing of a �physical� digital item, e.g. a CD-ROM, presents relatively few difficulties, but the identification and recording of the new kinds of digital publications possible today, and which will become commonplace tomorrow, do present new challenges. The successful resolution of these problems will be essential, if we are to be able to guide the user through the distributed digital library collection.

The digital collection will be stored and maintained in such a way as to ensure that it will continue to be available long after the period of its immediate currency.

A research library needs to retain material so as to provide future researchers with a rich corpus of source material. The British Library has the added responsibility of preserving the national published archive. The archival retention of digital materials presents complex problems, mainly because of the often symbiotic relationship between the data and the hardware/software system that provides access to it.

The Digital Library Programme

The Library is attempting to make this vision a reality through its Digital Library Programme [8]. The Goal of the Digital Library Programme is, within the framework of the British Library Act 1972, to:

improve access to the British Library�s collection, however it might develop in the future, for all users, through partnering with the private sector.

The objectives are:

  • to continue to build, and enhance access to and preservation of, the collection, including digital materials as these become more important;
  • to put in place the infrastructure to support the legal deposit of non-book materials;
  • to ensure the continued viability of the Library�s revenue-earning services;
  • to ensure that the Library can continue to provide its core services in the future digital environment.

As stated earlier, the service priorities are:

  • improved access to the Library�s historical holdings through services to the world-wide research community, schools and universities, and the general public;
  • the expansion of its UK and international document supply services through article alerting and improved delivery from a digital store, and links to other digital stores maintained elsewhere;
  • the expansion of patent services;
  • the extension of legal deposit to digital media.

How will these developments be funded?

The British Library is a non-departmental government body, funded mainly through grant-in-aid from the Department of National Heritage. At present, the level of grant-in-aid is around �85million per year, but the Library generates an additional �35million per year comprising revenue from its priced services, sponsorship, and from other funding bodies such as the European Commission�s Library Plan.

The development, provision and management of the operational and IT infrastructure for a digital library, on the scale envisaged, will require new expertise, experience and ingenuity. It is difficult to put a figure on the scale of the developments in financial terms but it is likely that these developments will require a multi-million pound investment, funding well beyond that which is available through Grant-in-Aid or from the Library�s current earnings, given that demand for our current services based on print materials is increasing. The Library currently generates revenue in the order of �24 million annually from its document supply and reprographic services With sufficient investment these revenue streams, together with the addition of new business opportunities for multi-media publishing and content licensing, could be increased significantly.

The Library�s Digital Library Programme is seeking to determine whether a successful partnering arrangement with the private sector can be achieved through the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), whereby the Library would be provided with the capabilities it needs to develop and manage digital collections to meet its obligations under the British Library Act, including the technical infrastructure needed to store, preserve and provide access to the archive of digital non-print legal deposit material, in return for allowing the private sector to exploit the market opportunities to be obtained from content-based digital services and products.

The PFI Process

The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) [9] was launched by the British Government in 1992 as a new method of public sector procurement. PFI is based on the principles of allowing both private and public sectors to concentrate on doing what they are likely to do best. Thus, the public sector acts as an enabler and guardian of public services which are provided by private sector management, creativity and capital investment.

To be successful, any PFI arrangement made by the Library will have to:

  • create an environment in which the private sector can find profitable opportunities which do not compromise the Library�s objectives;
  • provide value for money for the UK Treasury, especially through the transfer of risk to the private sector partner.

PFI projects operate under the EU procurement rules and the selection process must be open and must ensure competition. This applies to all stages of the process and the digital library project began with a Notice being placed in the Official Journal of the European Communities (OJEC) in November 1996 requesting interest in acting as the Library�s Financial Advisers for the Digital Library PFI Project. The process resulted in the appointment of KPMG. Denton Hall were appointed as the Programme�s legal advisers.

The first Phase of the project is a �market sounding� exercise which was announced with the publication of a Prior Indicative Notice in OJEC in February. The market sounding has the aim of obtaining the private sector�s assessment of the commercial viability of the Library�s approach and addressing in particular the robustness of the information market, the potential business opportunities of the digital library programme and the capability of the private sector to provide the necessary supporting technologies. The market sounding also allows time for the Library to undertake necessary consultation, and gives the Library the time to develop a full statement of its requirements before the official tendering phase. The intensive phase of market-sounding and construction of the Outline Business Case, with its requirement for approval by the British Library Board, The Department of National Heritage and The Treasury, with endorsement by the DTI, the PFI Executive and CITU, will be completed by mid-June, 1997.

Following the market sounding exercise, the next step in the PFI process is for the Library to go to full competitive tender, which will be announced by a further Notice in the OJEC. This, probably lengthy, negotiation process will result in offers from the private sector, which will be assessed and the full business case identifying the preferred option will be produced for approval by the Library�s Board and by the Department of National Heritage. This phase, leading to the award of contracts, could last up to twelve months following the market sounding.


It is anticipated that the content-based services and products to be generated through the PFI project will focus primarily on scientific, technical and medical data and on heritage materials where market opportunities can most readily be identified. As part of a wider digitisation programme, and to complement the PFI initiatives, the Library submitted a proposal to the Millenium Commission for a project entitled "Sounds and Images of Britain for the Millennium". This envisaged the creation of a database of digitised images and recordings, providing a definitive picture of Britain over two millennia and accessible on a national scale at home, in schools, in public libraries, or wherever a network link were available. Although the proposal was unsuccessful, the Library is continuing to explore with the Heritage Lottery Fund the possibility of obtaining Lottery funding to digitise less commercially attractive material within its collection in the interests of improving access for research and for the general public.


There are fundamental issues facing libraries of all kinds, concerning how they undertake the core library activities of collection development, collection organisation, access and preservation in the face of the diverse and growing amount of electronic information. Most of these major issues have both economic and policy foundations, covering: new economic models for publishers and, therefore, for librarians; the infrastructure costs which libraries must bear to provide access; charging policies, and how to ensure a level playing field for access to the users of information.

For many, if not all, libraries, digital material must be accommodated alongside traditional materials and, until a critical mass of substitution of paper with digital exists, the costs of providing library services which include digital materials look to increase in view of the increased IT infrastructure costs. In addition, publishers will wish to receive payment for networked access to their intellectual property, either through the purchase of a site license to allow free at the point of use access, or by the payment of royalties for each separate use of the item. It will be a challenge to reconcile these costs factors with the traditional basis of library services, recently expressed by the Library Association in its Library Manifesto briefing paper on public libraries:

"Under the terms of the Public Libraries and Museums Act (1964) anyone can use the library to consult books and other printed materials on library premises without charge, and those who live, work or study in an area are also entitled to borrow books or other printed material without charge. The Library Association believes that these new media should be provided in public libraries on exactly the same terms as books - available for consultation without charge on library premises, and, where appropriate, loaned without charge." [10]

There is no clear picture that any government would provide additional core funding to libraries to cover the additional costs of digital services and, therefore, to enable them to be provided as a public good. There could be a variety of ways in which digital library costs can be recouped. For instance, in the Information for All Millennium bid, an hourly rate to the end-user for "general terminal usage" (access to the network, access to free information sources, access to e-mail and to office packages, etc.) was proposed with additional charging for added value services, such as those based upon published copyright material. Sustainability and stability are the keys to ensuring that investment in the IT infrastructures can be recouped, and that assured volumes of usage will help to keep publishers� and other IPR owners� royalties at a level which will do nothing to inhibit growth.

The following quote by Sir Charles Chadwyck Healey in his article on the future of public libraries [The Networked Public Library in 2002 - Information for All WWW site] hints at how access to the value-added services might be achieved:

"Publishers are used to dealing with intermediaries and prefer to negotiate terms with information professionals representing groups of users. But librarians have to recognise that information delivered electronically is not necessarily free, it will continue to be `owned� and charged for as long as it costs someone money to create it. Librarians also have to develop their own entrepreneurial vision so that they take the lead in these initiatives and do not simply react to the initiatives of others."

We have seen that there are a number of models for the building of the national network: the Information for All bid to the Millennium Commission; the Labour Party�s IT manifesto calling on the telephony and cable TV companies to wire up every school and public library; Reading the Future�s �hint� that the Conservatives would establish an IT fund with post Millennium Lottery money to help build the network; JISC will continue to fund SuperJANET and its successors. Industry and �Joe Public� will have the benefit of a thriving and very competitive commercial Internet marketplace in which to buy connectivity. Assuming that the future picture is one of ubiquitous connectivity and universal service, Sir Charles� quote above draws attention to the realities of payment for access to content. He looks to a situation of the various library sectors negotiating access to published information for their sector. We have seen this in the HE national services and site license strategy, and the British Library has recently announced an agreement with Elsevier on the basis of the size of the Library�s user base and the corresponding business for Elsevier.

However, the Library and Information Commission�s 20-20 Vision document - its manifesto - calls for :

"a holistic rather than sectoral order to realise fully the potential value of library and information services in society"


"a coherent approach to information policy at national level"

I take this vision to include the goal of ensuring that, alongside universality of access to the network, there is no intrinsic barrier to access to content. This access will of course have to be paid for by someone, but economies of scale and reciprocal agreements between the sectors hold the promise that is behind all the national digital library initiatives described here. One of the major challenges for the management of digital information in libraries over the next five years will be to work towards a reality which matches the LIC�s 20-20 Vision.


  1. A Report on the May 18-19, 1995 IITA Digital Libraries Workshop -
  2. National Coordinating Office for Computing, Information and Communications. Next Generation Internet Vision. -
  3. Previously available at
  4. See for details
  5. See
  6. Previously available at
  7. British Library Information Systems Strategy -
  8. See for more information on the Digital Library Programme
  9. For more information on PFI see
  10. The Library Association. A Library Manifesto - Public Libraries - Previously available at

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