96 Euston Road
06 June 2014
An open letter to Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library
I spoke to you a while ago at a dinner of the society of Bookmen where you gave a presentation, and I suggested that British Library, if it is to serve Britain, rather than just London, should have reading rooms across the country, at least in the major cities such as (in alphabetical order) Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Southampton.
I would like to explain my reasoning for this proposal, together with some suggestions as to how it might be achieved.
The British Library is intended (together with the National Libraries of Wales and Scotland) to serve all the people of the United Kingdom in their scholarly activity. However, for many people it is extremely expensive to have to travel down to London in order to consult the Library’s collection. As the number of books that can be reserved is limited it can often take several days of research at a time to cover all the books that are wanted, and this means either multiple train tickets or the even greater cost of staying overnight in London. Scholars who are based outside London therefore need great dedication to give up whole days for what may turn out to have been the wrong books and either deep pockets or someone else who will fund their travel.
I appreciate that the late opening of the Library which at least means that it is possible to get several hours work in the library whilst making use of saver tickets, but it still means taking a whole day away from work, and adding perhaps four or more hours travel time to make use of the library. There is also the problem that arriving later, as cheap tickets require, means that all the desks may already be taken.
Therefore to better serve the people who live outside the M25 I think that there is a need for access to the library more locally. Given that the vast majority of books are now stored in Boston Spa and therefore have to commute to London there is little reason why they should not also commute to other locations.
I envisage this working by cooperation between the BL and university or city libraries which could dedicate some space specifically for consultation of BL resources. This space would obviously have to be available to any BL ticket holders, and whether it is staffed by BL staff or subcontracted to the local library would a detail that needs to be sorted out. Given the cost of distributing books and the (presumably) considerably smaller size of local reading rooms it may not be appropriate to have daily deliveries, but once or twice weekly should be possible to each branch from Boston Spa (with books from London’s holdings presumably going via Boston Spa).
Not only would this significantly reduce costs for scholars based in the provinces it would also reduce pressure on reading space in London.
I am aware that there are many problems that would have to be resolved (clearly many fragile books and manuscripts cannot easily be moved, but that is a fraction of the holdings). There would also be some additional funding required to cover staff costs in the local reading rooms and distribution of the books to them, but if the British Library is to truly fulfil its remit to be a library for the whole nation, rather than just for London and the wealthy, then I am sure that with some effort these could be resolved.
I hope that you will consider these ideas and the possibility of at least a trial in a couple of centres.