The March 28 issue of the Times Literary Supplement contains an op-ed piece by Malyn Newitt, formerly of King’s College London and Exeter University. Its title is “Out of Bounds: the National Trust’s Libraries,” and Newitt opens it by quoting the National Trust’s mission statement:
We take care of historic houses, gardens, mills, coastlines, forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, nature reserves, villages and pubs – and then we open them up for ever, for everyone.
But Newitt then points out that while the National Trust’s work in this regard has been invaluable and in many ways exemplary, it has left one important component of many of these properties far short of “open… to everyone”: the books that are housed in their libraries.
The historic houses that have been preserved by the National Trust and made available to the general public include, according to the Trust, “140 historic libraries (around 230,000 books in 400,000 volumes)…Many are country house libraries, some collected by wealthy bibliophiles, others containing more practical everyday books, including rare provincial printing.”
Newitt observes that in recent years the Trust’s Curator of Libraries has set out to catalog these collections, making it increasingly possible to search, identify, and locate their holdings via COPAC (a national online union catalog), and that concerted efforts are also underway to repair and conserve the books themselves.
All of these efforts Newitt praises, but he points out that while these books are, in many cases, now discoverable and theoretically available for scholarly examination by appointment, in reality they are effectively inaccessible given their scattered locations and the restrictions involved in arranging access to them. He calls on the National Trust to go one large step further towards its stated mission: to make the books available for reading by interested members of the public. He proposes a number of ways in which the Trust might move in this direction:
A printed version of the catalogue available in each library for consultation by visitors… “open days” when a library can be visited and the books inspected… a programme of exhibitions… programmes, developed with schools and colleges, based on interesting items from the library; digital images of rare and important items made available on the internet; a separate membership scheme for those wanting to use the libraries; or simply a reprographic service.
Any scholar, book lover, or librarian will empathize with Newitt’s irritation: the thought of these hundreds of thousands of volumes – many (if not most) of them in the public domain, and many (if not most) of them representing rare or functionally unique content – sitting in 140 now publicly-owned libraries where visitors are unable to read or even touch them, is teeth-grittingly frustrating. It seems to me, though, that most of his proposals would result in only very small and incremental increases in public access.
For these books – at least the ones in the public domain – to become truly accessible to the scholarly and general public, what really must happen is for them to be digitized and put online, where their intellectual content can be found and read freely. Seeing their pages on a computer screen is not, of course, the same thing as holding the books physically – but online access is radically better than no access at all (which is what the world has now), and in any case, digitizing the books would not make them any less physically accessible than they currently are.
So what is stopping the digitization from happening? My guess, based on experience working in academic libraries that hold collections of similar materials, is that there are two major barriers, one of them both inevitable and understandable, and the other one much harder to defend:
- Money. Purely functional digitization can be fairly cheap, but it is not free. High-quality digitization, on the other hand, is relatively expensive, as are the processes of metadata creation, search engine optimization, formatting and organizing images to make them easily usable, and storing them robustly and reliably. On the conservative assumption that only half of the books housed in these National Trust properties are in the public domain, we’re talking about creating a digital collection of 200,000 volumes – that’s not an inconsequential undertaking, and the money would have to come from somewhere: either redirected from other public projects, or brought in by a private entity. More about this in a moment.
- A desire for institutional control. This is the less-defensible explanation, and it’s one that I have encountered too often in libraries themselves. Very often, there is among librarians and curators a sense that creating free online access to these materials will harm the host organization by (in the short run) reducing the number of visitors and (in the long run) taking away the potential for future revenue streams. Sometimes these concerns are not very well articulated – they are expressed simply as a generalized sense that giving up institutional control over the content of these documents would be unwise.
As for the concern over money: that’s life. The reality is that resources are always limited, they tend to be particularly so where projects in the public sector are concerned, and a dollar (or pound) can only be directed to digitization projects by being taken away from some other endeavor – unless some outside entity can be convinced to underwrite the project. This, of course, is exactly how the Google Books project came about. Could the National Trust lure Google (or some similarly deep-pocketed organization) into its historic houses to digitize their public-domain books and make them available to the public under mutually-beneficial terms? And if such an organization were willing to do that, how would the academic world feel about it? What if the project created a significant net gain in public access, but also allowed the corporate underwriter to make money in some way – perhaps by selling printed copies on demand, or by licensing some kind of enhanced access to the online images? There are some in the scholarly world who would focus on the net benefit to scholarship and the net gain in public access, and would welcome such a partnership. My experience suggests that there are also many who would focus on the possibility of corporate gain under such a scenario, and would therefore oppose it in principle, regardless of its potential benefits to scholarship.
As for the concern about institutional control: I have little sympathy for it. While it’s possible that providing free online access to the books in these houses would reduce visitation levels, it seems highly unlikely: the books’ content is inaccessible to visitors now, so access to it can hardly be attracting visitors. And unless the Trust has plans to digitize the books itself and somehow generate revenue from the digital images, there is little or no opportunity cost to letting someone else create the images and potentially profit from their public availability.
There may well be other barriers to the Trust engaging in a project like this. I hope they can be overcome. As of now, the public-domain books housed in these historic properties are a public treasure to which the public that owns them has effectively no access.