Richard Poynder
Richard Poynder - Freelance Journalist
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Underpinning the Research Community


The British Library is one of the world’s top three national libraries. But what really makes it stand out from any other library, argues Natalie Ceeney, BL’s director of operations and services, is the breadth of its collection and the range of services it offers. This broader approach, she says, has enabled BL to create the world’s foremost document supply service and the most sought-after bibliographic tools. I spoke to Ceeney at the library’s document supply center in Boston Spa, Yorkshire, U.K.

Q: What is your role at The British Library?

A: I manage all of The British Library services. That includes our reading rooms in St. Pancras and here at Boston Spa, our bibliographic services, and our document supply services.

Q: You were appointed in 2001. What is your background?

A: I began my career in the U.K. National Health Service and then did 4 years consultancy at McKinsey before joining The British Library. Essentially, I’m a general manager who likes making things in big organizations work but also likes thinking about where we are going strategically.

Q: You are not a librarian. Is that good or bad?

A: I think you need both in a national library. If we didn’t have any librarians, we would lose our way. If we only had librarians, we would lack a business perspective. One strength of not being a librarian is that I have an outsider’s perspective. I can say: “Hang on. Why are you doing it that way when others do it differently?”

Q: You were appointed to a new post following a reorganization of the library. What changed?

A: When our CEO Lynne Brindley arrived 3 1/2 years ago, she felt the library needed a radical rethink. After consulting widely, she decided to introduce a different structure. Instead of the previous service-based, site-based structure, we have moved to a more functional structure, one more common in industry. We now have a marketing director who does all the library’s marketing, for instance, and an operations director (me) to oversee operations.

Q: How many staff do you employ?

A: The library as a whole has 2,500 staff, half of whom come under me in operations and services. Of these, half are based at St. Pancras in London and half here at Boston Spa. I also manage a sales team, a publisher relations team, and a legal copyright team.

Q: Who are your customers?

A: We have five main audiences, including business, the academic research community, the general public, schools, and the wider library network. Most of our services, however, are oriented toward the academic and business research audience, and we currently have around 20,000 customers. A third of these come from the commercial sector, and two-thirds from academia. In fact, around 90 percent of the U.K.’s top R&D companies use our services, including most of the top pharmaceutical and aerospace companies and almost all of the U.K.’s educational institutions.

Q: So most of your customers are based in the U.K.?

A: Around two-thirds are based in the U.K., and one-third are non-U.K.

Q: What have you changed since you arrived?

A: One of the first things I did was to create a sales team, something The British Library didn’t have before. We now also have account managers who are actively working with our big customers, saying: “This is what we do today. How can we improve it, and what do you want tomorrow?” In the past, the library was guilty of running a lot of services and assuming that customers could work out for themselves how they could use them. What now pervades everything we do is a focus on the user.

Q: You also recently launched a new secure electronic document delivery service?

A: Right. What researchers want is to be able to order documents with one click and then have them delivered directly to their desktop. Two years ago, you could only get information out of the library on paper or via cumbersome fax. At the end of last year, however, we replaced all our photocopiers with scanners. Now when a document is ordered, we scan it in rather than photocopy it. This means that rather than send it to you by post, we can e-mail it to you as a PDF file if you prefer.

Q: When you say document supply, you are talking about journal articles and extracts from books?

A: Yes. Essentially, the document supply service provides information in the shape of documents. However, we also have a reprographics service, so we can supply you with images. And we have a sound department that can provide sounds. So if you want an image from the Magna Carta, for instance, we can deliver a page from the Magna Carta, blown up and in perfect digital format. Or if you want a transcription of an audio tape, we can deliver that from our sound archives. All subject to copyright restrictions, of course.

Q: A document supply service presumably assumes customers know what they want?

A: It does, but if they don’t, we can still help. Our philosophy is that if you know what you want, we can get it to you at any speed, in any color, in any mode. If, on the other hand, you don’t know what you want, there are a couple of other ways we can help.

Firstly, you can search our catalogs. Secondly, we have introduced a new research service. If you are a small business looking to sell widgets into China, for instance, you can ask us to research the market for widgets in China. Our research team will then go off and find out and come back with the best 10 articles on the subject.

Q: You also have some commercial catalog products?

A: Right. The British Library catalog is what we produce in our “public good” role as a national library. Essentially, we catalog to the title level, providing just the basic data, and anyone can go to our Web site and search it.

In addition, however, we produce a commercial value-added database called Inside, which has abstracts and indexing added to the core data. And we have a similar product for the higher education market called Zetoc. Companies and academic institutions can license this data and integrate it with their own information.

Q: This is presumably what happened last year when you licensed your back catalog to What does that deal mean for the library, for Amazon, and for the public?

A: As a major international library, our catalog goes way back in time and covers some pretty rare books and collectors’ items. What was attractive to Amazon, therefore, was that it gives them a vast catalog of published books that they were not previously able to direct their customers to. It also allows them to enter the antiquarian book market. For us, it was a fantastic opportunity to get publicity for something that we do all the time: as you say, licensing our catalog.

Q: Who do you view as your main competitors?

A: Our biggest competitors in document supply are CISTI and Infotrieve, and in the table of contents market, Swets has a similar product. In research services, of course, there are many players. But let me tell you why I think we are better than our competitors.

Q: Please do.

A: The British Library has always taken a very broad view of its role. Unlike most national libraries, for instance, we see ourselves as the national library for research in the U.K., not just the library for U.K. holdings. As such, we have collected more widely than other national libraries, and we have always offered a wider range of services. We are, for instance, one of the very few national libraries to have a document supply service.

Not only do we catalog everything published in the U.K., but we create table-of-contents data for the world’s top 20,000 scientific journals, and we have a substantial collection of gray literature, including conference proceedings and Ph.D. theses. Our data also goes back in time—we’ve been systematically collecting for hundreds of years—and covers both the sciences and humanities.

So we have a very comprehensive collection and great catalog. Currently, for instance, we hold over 150 million separate items, our collection fills over 600 kilometers of shelving, and details of 8,000 new research articles appear on our searchable Web site each day. This means that in using our new scan-on-demand technology, we only have to walk a few steps to the stacks, put a document on a scanner, and then e-mail it out. No one else can match this, and we believe we have really leapfrogged the market with our new electronic delivery service.

Q: Other document suppliers tend to use Ariel for electronic delivery, don’t they?

A: Yes, but publishers find Ariel less satisfactory because it is not particularly secure. And customers dislike Ariel because it delivers large TIFF files and is very cumbersome. Our service uses Adobe Acrobat, which is lighter, and the reader is available as freeware.

Q: Can you say something about your revenues?

A: The library’s income is around [$200 million] a year, of which roughly [$45 million] is trading income—mainly from document supply. Apart from a couple of million [pounds] in sponsorship and grants, the rest comes from the government.

Q: There must be some tension in being a publicly funded organization that offers a mix of commercial and public-good free services?

A: We don’t see a tension. Yes, some of our services are charged for, and some are free. But as a publicly funded organization, we would never create a commercial operation simply to make money. Everything we do needs to support our overall goal, which is to help people create knowledge to enrich lives.

Q: So you only ever charge to cover your costs, not to make a profit?

A: Not quite. The library distinguishes between three types of service. The first is [the type] we do not charge for. It is a policy decision, for instance, that the library does not charge for its reading rooms. Secondly, there are services that we consider absolutely core to our mission, but for which we have to charge to recover costs. Thirdly, there are discretionary services where we offer a premium service and charge something extra.

So, for example, if you want a document delivered in 24 hours, you can use our standard service, which is priced at cost recovery. If, on the other hand, you want it in 2 hours, we will charge you more and at a price where we make a profit. That profit is then reinvested in the core services of the library.

Q: The issue of copyright is highly controversial right now. Some argue, for instance, that the DMCA and the EU Copyright Directive have upset the traditional balance between the rights of users and the rights of publishers. Would you agree?

A: We sit in the middle in this debate. On the one hand, we have very close relationships with publishers because we are the single largest buyer of published information in the U.K., and publishers are very keen to protect copyright. On the other hand, we are part of the library network, which wants information to be as widely available as possible. It is not for us, however, to comment on what the law says here but to make sure we work within it. Where we do comment on copyright is in connection with the international situation.

Q: What do you mean by the “international situation?”

A: I am referring, for instance, to the failure of the European Copyright Directive to harmonize European law, which it was intended to do.

Q: What are the implications of this for the library?

A: If, for example, an organization buys a document from us for commercial use, they will pay our fee, plus the publisher’s copyright fee, which averages around [$16.50] per document in the U.K. However, in some European countries—Germany, for instance—it costs [$2.50]. This means that we cannot supply to Germany because it is uncompetitive, so publishers are losing, and we are losing.

Q: Another area where I believe copyright impacts you is in your role as a legal deposit library. I’m told, for instance, that you have had considerable difficulty negotiating with publishers over access rules for electronic journals deposited with the library.

A: I wouldn’t put it that way. The whole area is certainly a minefield, but I would argue that the U.K. has led the way in introducing a framework for the legal deposit of electronic materials and done so by working across the library and publisher community in a united way. What was never in contention was the principle that it has to work, and I would characterize the U.K.’s new legal deposit bill as a success story. We now have the legislation in place. The next task is to work through the practicalities.

Q: What implications do the growth in open archiving and initiatives like the Public Library of Science have for The British Library?

A:  We have never taken a stance on the right publishing model. We just have to keep up with developments. If critical research information is published in open archive journals or institutional repositories, The British Library’s role is to make that information accessible to researchers.

Q: Presumably, if researchers are increasingly able to access articles and papers on the Web themselves, the library will see a drop-off in revenue from its document supply service?

A: Certainly, such developments raise huge challenges. If you consider institutional repositories, for instance, there is the challenge of finding material in the first place. Then there is the question of which is the definitive version and whether we should track the various stages of its publication. Then there is the issue of preservation, which is really difficult in the digital environment. And, as you say, there are challenges in terms of service. But in reality, what we make available through the document supply center has always been available elsewhere. The value we provide is in offering a one-stop shop, and I don’t think that changes.

Q: I understand that the library spent [$6.3 million] developing its secure delivery system. As information becomes increasingly digital, costs like these will surely spiral?

A: It is certainly true that the digital environment is imposing huge costs on us—a fact only just beginning to be understood outside the library community. What has surprised everyone is that we are collecting as much print, if not more, than we ever did, partly because digital material is still additional rather than substitutional in terms of print output. We are, therefore, still adding 12 kilometers of new shelving a year. This means we have the costs we always had with print, plus new digital costs. Amongst other things, these include the cost of finding ways to catalog and preserve digital material.

So you are right, there are huge new costs for the library. And our upcoming comprehensive spending review will argue that it is a core role for the library to support the digital infrastructure and that government therefore needs to help us in that task.

Q: Do you think the role of The British Library will change in the digital age, or is it business as usual?

A: At the heart of our mission has always been a mandate to support research, and that is what we intend to continue doing. Whatever services we offer—and they will surely change dramatically in the next 10 years—our primary role will therefore remain that of underpinning the research community.

This article has been reprinted in its entirety from the March, 2004 issue of Information Today with the permission of Information Today, Inc., 143 Old Marlton Pike, Medford, NJ 08055. 609/654-6266,


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