30 May 2011

LIKE 25: Return on Investment at the BL

LIKE 25 addressed one of its key topics, the role of the library. And it was a rather special library that we considered, the British Library (BL).

Our expert guide for the evening was Caroline Brazier, the Director of Scholarship and Collections at BL.

Like all public institutions BL is facing financial cuts and so is rethinking what it does, the value it provides and the KPIs used to measure them.

Helping them in this is a consultants' report that said that every £1 spent on BL produces over £4 in economic benefit. BL tried to drive this point home by naming their last annual report The Value of Knowledge.

BL costs around £100m a year, which seems to be a ridiculously good bargain that it seems remarkable that anybody has even thought about cutting it.

There are opportunities for BL too. Legislation passed in 2003 introduced a framework for BL to include digital content in its archive but so far none of the necessary regulations have been made to enact any of this.

A number of questions were asked and the talk evolved in to a discussion even before we got to the table discussion stage. During these discussions the position of BL became less clear.

For example, how does BL differ from the British Museum and the National Archives. BL holds the Magna Carter which I would not have expected.

BL gets 120k books and 50k periodicals given to it each year in its role as the national deposit library but it also buys copies of some of these so that it can provide commercial services around them (it cannot profit from the things that it gets given for free).

BL buys a number of foreign publications that are also collected in their country of origin. Choosing which ones to buy is an on-going decision. Overall BL spends around £17m on acquisitions.

BL has a commercial section that sells oven gloves and cufflinks. One wonders why.

The table discussions that were summarised at the end reinforced the need for BL to properly understand its purpose and value. Is it a just collection (and, if so, of what) or does it provide research services?

Who gets real value from BL and would they be willing to lobby on BL's behalf and/or pay more for the services used?

Can BL work with other specialist libraries in the UK, e.g. for professional bodies in healthcare and law, and in other countries to agree who collects what and to share collections.

The impression I got from the talk and discussions is that BL is a remarkable place but having been forced to think about what it is there for it is struggling to come up with an answer. I wish it well.

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