To the British Library (which has one of the world’s best URLs, by the way) for an event marking the extension of the ancient rights of legal deposit to the great libraries of the UK and Ireland.
Regulations coming into force tomorrow (6 April) will enable six major libraries to collect, preserve and provide long term access to the increasing proportion of the UK’s cultural and intellectual output that appears in digital form – including blogs, e-books and the entire UK web domain.
From this point forward, the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales, the Bodleian Libraries, Cambridge University Library and Trinity College Library Dublin will have the right to receive a copy of every UK electronic publication, on the same basis as they have received print publications such as books, magazines and newspapers for several centuries.
The regulations, known as legal deposit, will ensure that ephemeral materials like websites can be collected, preserved forever and made available to future generations of researchers, providing the fullest possible record of life and society in the UK in the 21st century for people 50, 100, even 200 or more years in the future.
It’s a big moment and the British Library was the right place to mark it. But the event itself was, well, puzzlingly naff. The vast (and glorious) entrance hall of the Library was thronged with library and publishing types, all drinking from some mysterious source of liquor which I never managed to locate. Nibbles consisted of two kinds of roasted peanut and some cheese straws. Deafening ambient noise was provided by escapees from an Ibiza nightclub, who specialised in a techno genre of the kind that is normally appreciated only by the recently deceased. The audio crew also came equipped with dry-ice machines and disco lights and made sure that no civilised conversation was possible within 100 metres of the venue.
It was very New Labour, somehow. Lots of thirtysomething apparatchiks in Paul Smith suits, close-cropped hair and purposeful looks. Eventually, the din was stilled and the strangely-designated “Chief Executive” of the Library, a former BBC executive named Roly Keating, also in a Paul Smith suit with tapered trouser-legs, stepped forward to make a little speech, which was the only graceful thing in the entire evening. He was followed by the Head of the National Library of Scotland and a lady novelist of whom I am ashamed to admit I had never heard. Then there was a naff ‘countdown’ — despite the fact that the legislation giving force to the new legal deposit arrangements didn’t come into force until midnight. And then it was over.
All in all, very unsatisfactory. One wondered what the staff of Trinity College, Dublin or of the National Library of Wales made of it. They after all, had made the trek to London and presumably an overnight stay. And then there were the people from the Bodleian and some of my colleagues from Cambridge University Library. All of these folks had put a lot of work into the detailed preparations needed to make digital legal deposit a reality. But they didn’t get a look-in at the actual launch event. Was this standard-issue metropolitan bias, one wondered, or just plain ineptitude? Being of a charitable disposition, I’m plumping for the latter. But I wouldn’t bet on it.