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Libraries, the internet and philanthropy

5 November 2013

Newton BLIn the ten years of research before the publication of the paper edition of my Dictionary of pastellists in 2006, my main sources were also on paper: published books, journals and manuscripts consulted in libraries and archives mainly in Britain and France. In the seven years since, I have been able to add much more material with online resources available in my own home. Most – nearly all – of these additions have related to very obscure pastellists, recorded perhaps in a footnote in nineteenth-century proceedings of a recondite learned society or evidenced by an advertisement in an eighteenth-century newspaper. The satisfaction is when the names are found again on works that turn up at auction: but all these additions are the art-history lexicographer’s Scrabble-winners.

You too will have noticed the wonderful convenience of these resources (and may even imagine we have always had them). O brave new world. The full OED and DNB are only a click away…but actually, several clicks. You have to “sign in”. It doesn’t cost – you can use your free local library number to do so – but you probably share my slight irritation that one click is twelve, of which eleven should be unnecessary. Other frustrations concern the failure of many of these sites to tag their material properly – so, to find a specific volume of a periodical on the Internet Archive you often have to open each one until you come to it (only to find it was omitted, while others were duplicated): evidence perhaps of librarians and IT specialists not communicating in the planning stages.

More annoyingly, a wealth of genealogical material which a portrait expert must consult is only accessible against paid subscription – often overlapping heavily with other services for which one has already paid.

But while these costs are just about manageable, the biggest concern are the charges imposed by some publishers for online access to important material which are frankly unaffordable. In the case of a publishing project such as the Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon the business model is arguably no different from that underlying the print project – one I am particularly familiar with from my days, more than thirty years ago, when I worked for a publisher called Robert Maxwell. Trading on Western paranoia about Russian scientific achievement, he discovered that it was more profitable to target a smallish group of libraries who were price-insensitive than to risk a larger print run at a lower price. When I realised that this made the quality of content irrelevant, I resigned and got a proper job.

What is more troubling is where the material is already ours, but is to be exploited through ill-thought-out arrangements with foreign publishers owned by private equity and run on principles that the Co-op may soon find differ fundamentally from its ethos. (Steinway Hall is also to close.) This is brought home to me by the deal the British Library has made concerning access to its pre-1800 newspaper archive, subscriptions to which are simply not even offered to individuals but are available only to universities – at a cost set to recover and reward the investment. You can imagine why a trend that privileges academe over independent scholarship angers me particularly, although in this case I can always consult the material in the reading room – provided I am prepared to battle with the Circle Line, which never works properly, before taking my life in my hands crossing the ice-rink plaza on a rainy day (was it Colin St John Wilson’s private joke that Newton should eternally preside over the spectacle of hapless readers enacting his laws of motion?). Not to mention the filthy loos resulting from too many readers, most of whom could find what they want at home – particularly if access to the Burney collection were free to all.

Of course it costs money to digitise these great collections, and it must be recovered somehow. (The extra clicks to the OED ensure that non-British users have to pay.) And however much I might like that to be through general taxation, in an era of austerity that simply isn’t going to happen. But isn’t it rather odd that universities should be paying instead? How much of the £9000 tuition fee goes to pay for these subscriptions? Money is fungible, so you may argue that it is covered by private philanthropy. But wouldn’t it be better for philanthropists to fund the initial digitisation by the BL rather than give money to universities to pay subscriptions which reward private equity investors?

The question is simple: whom does the philanthropist love? Love of course is capricious and irrational – and unfair. I love some libraries more than others. It is always a pleasure to go to the London Library where the staff are ever courteous – unlike front of house at the BL, they plainly enjoy their jobs. This isn’t just because the London Library is private: a visit to the National Art Library is usually pleasurable, while at the BL there is an institutionalised, QWERTYUIOP mentality that puts readers and staff in constant conflict (think of the gratuitous vandalism of the watermark imposed on every scan you make there).

The consequence is that the London Library has splendid facilities, courtesy of Valerie Eliot (whose fine collection of miniatures is to appear at Christie’s in two weeks) – or rather courtesy of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote the music that produced the royalties. Extraordinary how potent cheap music is (fortunately I don’t know the tunes, so they don’t spin through my head on every visit to the library). But philanthropists are unlikely to favour so dull a project as digitising the BL archives; recognition at high table in an Oxbridge college is far more glamorous.

I just hope the Bibliothèque nationale and other foreign archives I need do not go down this path. The materials that are available most easily – freely and with fewest restrictions – are the ones that will have most benefit to scholars, and least profit to entrepreneurs. Philanthropists who really want the most for their money should think about that. And the BL should think about its loos.


Ten days after I emailed the British Library to suggest they reconsider the access arrangements for the Burney database, I received this reply (unedited, except for the removal of the hapless clerk’s name):

Dear Colleague, Thank you for your email. The Burney database can only be viewed on site due to licensing restrictions.  The website is also available to all Further and Higher Education UK institutions.

He is not my colleague, although I can recommend him for a job at British Rail where trains are so often delayed owing to late running.

From → Art history, Politics

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