A digital archive


In what is being described as its biggest undertaking since the 17th Century, the British Library has committted itself to adding to its vast stores – 150 million items on 800km of shelving – by archiving the UK’s virtual world of web sites, digital publications, e-books, DVDs, blogs and even chatter on social networks. On Friday night the library began to “harvest” the 1 billion pages of contents of the .uk domain, to be followed later by UK content on .com and .org, a “reassertion of what it means to be a library in the digital age”, according to its chief exeecutive, Roly Keating.

The library (since 1662), along with the library of Trinity College, Dublin, the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales, the Bodleian in Oxford, and Cambridge University library – “legal deposit libraries” – has been entitled by law to receive automatically from publishers a free copy of every book and pamphlet printed in these islands. That privilege in the UK is now being extended by legisaltion to the digital world, and the said libraries will each provide access within their walls to the newly gathered material. To protect the commercial rights of those producing paid-for content, it will not be on completely open online access.

Trinity’s library will, uniquely, be an outlet for this UK material in Ireland, but has itself, in conjunction with the National Library, lobbied a government-appointed committee reviewing the 2000 Copyright Act in a bid to have it extended to provide a similar digital deposit requirement here in respect of our six legal deposit libraries. The committee’s report, which is imminent, is expected to recommend extension to digital material, and it is to be hoped that the Government will act promptly to legislate accordingly.

What is being created in the UK is a magnificent treasure trove and research tool, an indispensible window for the future on our world today, a world in which the digital dimension is now central, and without which a national archive would be sorely deficient. The Government must follow suit.