The Past, Present, and Possible Futures of Legal Deposit
Dr. Paul Gooding (Principal Investigator)
Sir Thomas Bodley casts a long shadow over the history of libraries in the United Kingdom. In 1598, with the library at Oxford University in a state of disrepair, Bodley's offer to lead its restoration was accepted. The resultant library, named in his honour, was formally re-opened in 1602. Eight years later, he created the precursor to legal deposit in the UK. His 1610 agreement with the "Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers", the body representing the UK publishing industry, permitted the Bodleian Library to claim a copy of everything printed in the UK under Royal License. This agreement, according to some, made the Bodleian our first de facto national library.
It wasn't until 1662, though, that legal deposit became part of UK law. The regulations enshrined a statutory requirement that publishers submit copies of their publications to nominated repositories, to ensure that the nation's public record would be preserved. Today, books, periodicals, pamphlets, maps and music are all covered, creating a national collection so large that it's more easily measured in kilometres, and navigated by robots:
The unit of measurement for our libraries is changing again, though. Increasingly, we understand our collections in terms of terabytes, in response to an explosion in the publication of digital materials. In 2013, the UK government empowered libraries to capture these formats, enacting legislation that brought electronic publications under the umbrella of legal deposit. Libraries were required to develop new technologies, and new ways of working, to collect, curate, preserve, and make accessible the new formats. In many cases, the electronic copy is the only copy: to fail to secure it now would be to lose it forever. While legal deposit is sometimes framed as a posterity-driven activity, then, the challenges that the six UK legal deposit libraries face are immediate and shared internationally.
It's here where we, the Digital Library Futures project team, come in. We are interested not just in the regulations, but the impact they have on our institutions, working practices, staff, publishers, and users. We are working with the Bodleian Libraries, and Cambridge University Libraries, to explore these impacts at an institutional level. Our case studies will inform a wider consideration of how the needs of libraries, users and publishers can be balanced in relation to electronic legal deposit.
There are several debates that inform our thinking: the way that academic deposit libraries must balance their imperative to make collections accessible and useful with their long-term regulator responsibilities; the question of how far e-legal deposit collections can and should be used to support contemporary users; the challenges of balancing the long-term view of legal deposit provision with contemporary data-driven innovations in research, and in government; and the role of e-legal deposit materials in widening participation, while respecting the commercial interests of rights holders.
At the heart of Digital Library Futures is our desire to realign these debates towards the user perspective. Empirical research into the users of e-legal deposit, and the institutions that deliver it as a user service, has been almost ignored in comparison to regulatory, technical and strategic questions. To our knowledge, this will be the first public user-centred study of the impact of e-legal deposit. We look to the past to understand how legal deposit came to exist; we look to the present to discover the impact of the 2013 regulations on usage, and on the institutions responsible for serving users; and we look to the future to examine the long-term implications. In doing so, we aim to shed light on how national library collections will be constituted, used, and understood in the coming years and decades.
For now, welcome to the project website, where we intend to keep you updated on our progress. This is just the first blogpost in what we hope will be an informative and exciting series, including contributions from carefully chosen guests. You can also find us on twitter (@elegaldeposit). We would be delighted to hear from you, so do get in touch with me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Linda Berube, our Senior Research Associate (email@example.com) - we look forward to hearing more from you!
Image: The Life of Sir Thomas Bodley written by himself (1894, p.13).