Taking Liberties at the British Library, pt. 2.

As regular readers will recall, I posted a week or so ago about the publicity for this forthcoming (31st October) exhibition at the BL. The post got picked up not only by a few other bloggers, but also by Matthew Shaw, the curator of the exhibition. (Does the BL have some sort of web ‘rapid rebuttal unit’? When I wrote some ill-informed guff about their plans for digital theses, I also got a very swift response putting me straight.)

The BL very kindly invited me to have a sneak preview of some of the items in the exhibition. Matthew let me see the London Working Men’s Association minutebook, papers relating to Francis Place and Sir Francis Burdett, and the suffragette Olive Wharry’s prison scrapbook. If there’s anything likely to assuage a grumpy historian, it’s an opportunity to look at some old stuff.

The exhibition will feature items from outside of the BL’s own collections, including the original text of the Putney Debates (on loan from Worcester College) and the 18-foot long Great Reform Act, complete with stitched on amendments. Not only will it stretch chronologically from Magna Carta right up to the present day, but it will also tackle a variety of different themes, from the struggle for democratic rights to campaigns for freedom of the press, to the development of social and economic rights in the modern era.

Aside from the exhibition itself, there will also be a permanent website linked to it (not yet live), and a series of evening events debating key questions with guest speakers including Shami Chakrabati, Baroness Williams, Professor Conor Gearty and Polly Toynbee.

As somebody who likes watching the X-factor and also cares about threats to our civil liberties, I still don’t like the posters, but, hey, they’ve certainly provoked debate. Whatever my remaining reservations about the publicity, the range of documents on show, and the breadth of themes addressed, make this a very important and timely exhibition.

For more info, go here. Thanks very much to Matthew and his colleagues at the BL for letting me have a nose around and ask a few questions.

The British Library – ‘Taking a F**king Liberty?’

Taking a facking liberty

Taking a facking liberty

As Catherine Tate might say…The British Library’s ‘Taking Liberties‘ exhibition – co-curated by Linda Colley and Shami Chakrabati – isn’t open yet, but judging by the advance publicity there’s already some cause for concern.

Outside the main building, a large poster displays clenched fists (grrr! militant!) surrounded by text which declares that more young people now vote for contestants on the X-factor than do in general elections. The problem is that this is a much-repeated urban myth which doesn’t take into account the very different nature of voting in a reality-tv competition (namely, you can vote more than once and, unlike in a general election, each individual vote counts.)

Why has the BL persisted in trotting out this lazy cliché? The next piece of text probably gives a clue.

‘In some countries you wouldn’t have the right to visit an exhibtion about your rights.’

Or, ‘if you like Iraq so much, why don’t you go and live there?’

This statement smacks strongly of the Blair government’s much repeated line at the time of the massive protests against the Iraq war: that protestors should be jolly grateful that they could express their opposition – they wouldn’t be allowed to by Saddam. The suggestion is that the British public somehow ‘luxuriate’ in their capacious freedoms (by exercising them) and so don’t understand how terribly lucky they are.

Underlying all of this, and much of Labour’s recent rhetoric on rights and citizenship, is the repellent idea that fundamental human rights like freedom of expression and association are somehow in the gift of our generous politicians and that we, as citizens, have to ‘earn’  them.

Some newspapers have suggested the ‘Taking Liberties’ is one in the eye for Brown, who reportedly wanted the BL to mount an exhibition on Britishness instead. I’ll reserve full judgment until the exhibition opens, (I’m slightly reassured by Chakrabati’s statement to the press:

“Liberty has been delighted to work with the British Library on its exciting new “Taking Liberties” project. The oldest unbroken democracy has become rather complacent about hard-won rights and freedoms. This important exhibition will remind us how much we have to lose.”)

but from the advance publicity at least, it looks as if it’s actually right up this government’s street.

The availability of digital theses and the BL as ‘middle man’

Interesting posts by both Mercurius Rusticus and Oxoniensis on the news that the BL is shifting away from microfilming new theses to a system whereby students will submit theses to their own institutions’ digital archives. The HEIs will then either make these theses available themselves or via the EThoS homepage. Both are worried that this will actually make it harder to gain access to these theses. I don’t think so, and for a few reasons.

1. EThoS proudly proclaims its intention of ‘bringing the UK to the forefront of international e-theses provision.’ Unfortunately, the UK is already ‘behind the 8-ball’, as they say in rubbish sport commentary, here. Take a look at what European and North American institutions are already making available and you will see what I mean. (Posts below about Cesare Cuttica’s thesis and comments, plus my remarks on already existing digital repositories.) The UK is playing catch-up, there are already plenty of great theses available free to download. The more the merrier. Hurry up Britain.

2. The BL’s role as a ‘middle-man’ in all this seems pretty redundant – already you can go straight to the digital archives of many HEIs in the UK and download theses free-of-charge. The relative scarcity of history theses here is a result of the fact that arts and humanities students still look towards the publication of a monograph as the ultimate ‘output’ for their work. (See 3. below, however.) The only role I can see for EThoS is as acting as a non-subscription database of available electronic theses, as opposed to something like Index to Theses. Limited as that is, it will doubtless be helpful to researchers without an academic affiliation. So, more, not less accessible, especially for private scholars.

3. We are talking about the media through which theses are distributed. This doesn’t affect the author’s right to restrict access to their thesis, which they had even when these things actually had to be viewed in hard copy. However, as I have suggested elsewhere, the trend towards publishing theses on-line will, if anything, increase the likelihood that postgraduates will allow immediate access. Why? We are moving towards a governmental research assessment format which will essentially bring the arts and humanities into line with the social and hard sciences. I’ll leave aside the question of whether this is a good or bad thing but there will be a greater emphasis on ‘metrics’ which, given the way this data is collected, will privilege articles and electronic publications above monographs and edited collections. The shorter timescale recently announced for the new REF also makes a move away from the scholarly monograph more likely.

4. Charging for download. Again, unlikely, and if it does come into play, very dumb. Hardly anybody makes money from academic monographs. I think you could have just about bought a week’s worth of shopping from Tesco from my royalty payments for Revolutionary England and the National Covenant. The aim of these works is, of course, to disseminate the researcher’s findings, rather than to make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Outside of the UK, most electronic theses are currently available free of charge, so UK institutions will be shooting themselves in the foot if they insist on making people pay for theses. (Not to say they won’t do this, of course!)

5. JISC is driven by government directives about ‘knowledge transfer.’ It is unlikely to support restrictive, subscription-only or pay-on-demand schemes.

6. Even if these schemes turn out to be a bit rubbish, there is very little to stop frustrated researchers from getting themselves a blog or a webpage and publishing their own thesis there. Forward the digital revolution!

Now, what the BL should really be doing is digitising all those old theses it has on microfilm and making them available, free of charge, online.

Published in: on June 9, 2008 at 10:48 am  Comments (2)  
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Struggling to find a seat in the British Library?

In the Guardian today, (which I read while actually having my lunch at the BL.) Apparently, Claire Tomalin, Lady Antonia Fraser and Tristram Hunt have all been having difficulty finding free desks in the British Library. According to Tomalin the place is full of ‘schoolgirls giggling.’ Personally, I think the BL is getting overrun with biographers, journalists and popular historians, talking loudly over their cappuccinos. Some of them just come in to use the wifi, you know.

On a more serious point, the BL is very, very busy at the moment – but to an extent, that is a good thing. It’s meant to be the national library, not an exclusive club. It only really gets tricky to find a seat during UoL exam periods. And I don’t see too many students chatting, they’re too busy revising.

More difficult is the obvious change in use of certain reading rooms to meet expanding general reader demand. Rare books (where I usually work) is now being divided up into two sections: one for those actually using pre-1850 material, another for those simply seeking refuge from the bear pit of Humanties 1. That shift in use is also being signalled in other ways – the disappearance of the facsimiles of the Thomason Tracts, which used to be on open access. It may be that the BL thinks that these have now been supersceded by EEBO, which can be accessed on its workstations, but EEBO is really a poor substitute for being able to quickly and easily pull several volumes off the shelves at the same time and have them all open in front of you. How long before rare books and western manuscripts get merged?

Partly, I think this is just a question of how libraries develop over time. It’s easy to forget that the St. Pancras BL is still a pretty new library and I still think they haven’t quite worked out how best to site their open access material (why, for example, are biographical dictionaries split up amongst a variety of reading rooms, rather than placed in one location?) This is one of the reasons why, despite the absence of a coffee shop, I still prefer working in the Bodleian (on the rare occasions that I can get there.)

One thing is for certain, the British Library ‘s services are very much in demand. They deserve better government support than that offered in the mealy-mouthed response to last year’s petition.