Thursday, 8 September 2011

UK Government rejects idea of National Digital Library

This afternoon, Ian Clark pointed out this TheyWorkForYou answer from the UK Minister in charge of libraries, Ed Vaizey. Asked “whether he has considered the merits of establishing a national digital library service”, Mr. Vaizey replied: 

We have no plans at present to establish a national digital library service. However, local authorities continue to provide remote access for their users to catalogues, e-books and online reference resources and the UK remains a partner in Europeana—the European Digital Library network which provides access, through its website, to objects from cultural institutions within the European Union. 

(Note that, in true politician style, this doesn’t answer the question posed.)

In a previous article about developing a UK National Digital Library, I named the British Library and/or the BBC as potential institutions which could undertake the project. I deliberately did not mention the UK Government and I did this for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t think the Government should develop an NDL. It would be a concern for any state to have such control over such a large body of information and the country’s cultural heritage. Though a National Digital Library would need to be publicly funded (a. in order to be ‘national’ and b. to avoid the pitfalls of private-sector ownership of shared cultural resources), it would not be beneficial for it to be under the direct control of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The DCMS is a Government department and is under the whims of whichever political party is in power: the reason to worry about this is not because the current Government cannot be trusted but because such power has the potential to be abused by successive governments. A National Digital Library could however be government-led under the control of a quango with a suitably high degree of autonomy (the Arts Council England, for example). But this leads to the second reason I didn’t mention the government: I don’t think the current Coalition Government would develop an NDL. Thus far the Coalition hasn’t shown education to be one of its core values and Ed Vaizey has shown no inclination to expand the UK’s library service (demonstrably the opposite, in fact). The Government’s public spending cuts leave no room for bold expansive projects for the future of education and culture. 

That said, it’s disappointing that Vaizey so casually dismisses the notion of a UK National Digital Library. His answer doesn’t show any sign that it’s an idea they are considering or that could be effected if more money were available. There are simply “no plans at present”. It’s most unfortunate because this is an opportune time to make a National Digital Library and the UK should do so before it’s too late. Other governments are investing in the idea for their own countries: notably France (Gallica as part of the Bibliothèque nationale), Norway (NBdigital) and the United States (the Digital Public Library of America and other projects). It seems naïve and foolish to have no plans and no plans to develop plans. 

Vaizey’s answer confirms that the Coalition Government will not provide a National Digital Library. We need to look elsewhere for an organisation willing enough, bold enough, and with enough foresight to work on such an important project.

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