Friday, 13 January 2017

Erudite Erasure

What has happened to our libraries? Are they really surviving in the digital world? These are not new questions, but I want to add some personal insights and experiences.

Figure 1 - Evaporating libraries.[1]

During my teens, I spent many hours in the central library of Nottingham, in England. I would get down there after school and remain there, reading and taking notes, until closing time. I would then return home on the bus, clutching a stack of books and a bag of chips (that’s “fries” to my American friends). The driving force was a curiosity about certain subjects in physics and mathematics that were too far above my pay-grade for either my teachers or my school library to help.

In those days, the term “local library” actually meant something as each suburb usually had its own branch library, although they wouldn’t have held the specialised material that I needed, and hence the need for me to take a 30-minute bus ride into the city. Since that time, funding cuts and general lack of attendance have meant job cuts and the closure of many branches. Also, that original central library building (built in 1881, on Shakespeare Street) was taken over by the Nottingham Trent University, and the central library moved to a different location on Angel Row. That more-modern nondescript building never seemed to carry the same authority as the original one, and there are plans to move it yet again.

I still use that library, but for an entirely different purpose. As my subject of interest now includes local history, I often access their local studies department, either in person — when I’m in the area — or through the Internet, or by telephone. The staff are always very helpful, and they’ve performed numerous searches on my behalf.

One of the resources I frequently accessed through their Web site was the Gale database of ‘19th Century British Library Newspapers’; all this required was my UK library card. Some time ago, this resource was taken down by the Nottingham library. At the time, I was told that it had been replaced by online access to the British Newspaper Archive (BNA), except that this was only accessible from the library premises! This was incredibly stupid as it barely qualified as “online” at all, and I was extremely angry. If I had some disability then it may have been too onerous to take that trip into the city each time I needed access. As it was, my physical location was rather fluid — hopping between countries — and so it was impractical for me, too.

Even if I could have called in, I specifically wanted access to the Gale database as it covered additional newspapers, and it offered advanced search operators that made complex searches much easier and reliable than using BNA. I tried a number of other English libraries but the same story was told by most — maybe it was all about money, or old-style book-loan thinking, or the hard sell from BNA.

So what was the story with the other libraries that did still host this Gale database? Well, things got a little farcical there. Both Bristol and Derbyshire claimed that the “licensing agreement” with the publisher meant that I had to “live, work, or study” in that area. Well, “live” and “work” are easy to define, but what does “study” mean? Does it mean attending some local educational establishment, or performing research in the area, or performing research of the area? Several of my articles are more historical than genealogical, and relating to multiple towns including my home town, so they stood to benefit from my research. In fact, I had already given a number of my blog links to the Nottingham library. This really makes a mockery of doing research in a digital world since your physical location should not be important for access to Web resources.

Our library cards do not actually say “UK” on them, and they are issued by the central library of the respective district. In fact, the card numbers are not even uniform, and I was told that there are at least three independent systems managing them. Effectively, I was only a member of the libraries in the county — or sometimes a consortium of neighbouring counties — that issued my card, and of no others. Each district decides on the online resources it will host, but I am not free to join just any library as I must have an address in that area. This chaos also used to mean that I could not loan a book directly from a different library, but they would at least have been able to organise an inter-library loan if my own library didn’t hold a copy. In the digital age, the same chaos means that there is no concept of a single sign-on (for web access) using our card numbers; their systems are totally independent.

Let me just emphasise this: our libraries are insular bodies that do not recognise all library cards issued in the same country; they will not share digital resources with holders of cards from other districts; and not all libraries host the same online resources. To make this worse, some of those database publishers have no interest in personal subscriptions. Gale, for instance, informed me that “Our databases and digital archives are only available for institutions to trial and purchase. They are not available at this stage for individual subscriptions or trials …”, and so I was reliant on a library lottery.

I haven’t even considered the predicament of any expatriate researchers. I am lucky that I have retained a connection with my home country, even though I spend time elsewhere.

It’s hard to know who to blame: the individual libraries, the controlling authorities, or the publishers of the databases. But it is interesting to ponder on who benefits from this skewed, Luddite interpretation of Web access. Access to library resources is currently free to members of that library, but the database publishers want money. That money comes primarily from the local councils, and since each library decides on what it wants to host then they can’t afford to subsidise access from other districts where their libraries do not host the same resources.

I don’t know how functional the new BNA access is from the library premises, but I do know that the access provided through a Findmypast subscription is deliberately nobbled to the point of being barely usable (see When the Digital Age Hinders). I can therefore see how the same mentality would try to restrict it to a physical location. But there are claimed licensing restrictions on other databases, too. Why would these be necessary if the publisher gets paid? Are the libraries complicit in these restrictions in order to get a cheaper subscription?

The upshot of this is that users are left wanting. There is no coherent strategy regarding access to their Web resources across the country; if your own library doesn’t have it then you could be stuck. This includes all digital resources, not just genealogical or historical ones. Personal subscriptions to the relevant databases may not be possible, and so we need our libraries as portals to them. I would happily pay some modest amount, based on the frequency of my access, but that is only possible if these libraries agreed on a coherent national framework, including a single sign-on using our card numbers.

[1] Image credit: Mysticsartdesign, Pixaby ( : accessed 12 Jan 2017); CC0 Public Domain.

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