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27 May 2022

The Digital Library

Tag(s): History, Languages & Culture
This week I attended a fascinating webinar organised by Oxford University Alumni. Through this means I get the opportunity to attend webinars and lectures organised by the University which has not surprisingly very wide reach.  This particular webinar was delivered by Richard Ovenden OBE the librarian of the Bodleian library which is the principal library at Oxford University. The webinar was attended by over 1000 Alumni from all over the world.  Over 100 people left something in the Chat room.[i]

Richard has been Bodley’s Librarian (the senior executive position of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford) since 2014. Prior to that he held positions at Durham University Library, the House of Lords Library, the National Library of Scotland, and the University of Edinburgh. He moved to the Bodleian Libraries in 2003 as Keeper of Special Collections, becoming Deputy Librarian in 2011. He was educated at the University of Durham and University College, London and holds a Professorial Fellowship at Balliol College, Oxford.

He serves as Treasurer of the Consortium of European Research Libraries, as President of the Digital Preservation Coalition, and as a member of the Council on Library and Information Resources (in Washington DC). He is a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the Deutsches Literaturarchiv (Marbach). He is also a member of the Libraries Committee of the International Alliance of Research Universities and the Information and Open Access Policy Group of the League of European Research Universities. He has written extensively on professional concerns of library and information management, on the history of photography, and has written a history of the deliberate destruction of knowledge, Burning the Books: a History of Knowledge Under Attacks. He was awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, 2019. The title for his presentation was “Saving Knowledge from the Deluge by Creating a Digital Ark.” This referred to what Francis Bacon said to Sir Thomas Bodley when he was donating a manuscript from his own records.

 “You have built an ark to save learning from the deluge.”

The 16th century Protestant Reformation destroyed many substantial libraries. Pages of books in Oxford’s libraries were torn out and sold for scrap, in some cases being actually used to rebind other existing books that were still in favour.  The Bodleian was built in the 1480s and became the most famous library in Renaissance Europe. But now increasingly information is provided in digital formats. Millions of downloads take place annually from Bodleian’s digital libraries and it is now the most heavily consumed format. There are online reading lists and other services like ‘scan and deliver’ and free 3D printing.

The preservation of knowledge is one of the principal functions of a library and there have been famous examples in the Bodleian’s history such as an important work by Edmund Halley which had been derived in a Greek format but with a missing book among the eight that should have been there. Eventually an Arabic version of this turned up and they were able to translate and restore the full work.

In the 18th-century the library acquired an early version of Magna Carta. At the time one of the most distinguished jurists in history, William Blackstone, was writing a book on the very subject and now he had an early version to use as his source material. Both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin owned a copy of this book so it can truthfully be said that this example of the preservation of knowledge influenced world history.

Oxford has a Research Archive known as ORA and has been digitising its collection since 1992. It was the first library with its own website, and it is now digitising 'out of copyright' text. The library contains 13 million printed books stored on 40 km of shelving. The 12th millionth book was an early critical essay by Percy Bysshe Shelley[ii] who was a student at the University but unfortunately owing to his radical views, his atheism and his quite wild behaviour at times he was asked to leave the University. No doubt Oxford’s loss was the world’s gain in terms of romantic poetic output that he produced. The last digital book to be published just last week was appropriately the first book to come out of Ukraine in 1676.

In 2011 the library completed brand-new off-site storage facilities with state-of-the-art technology containing 11 million items among its archives, including records from Oxfam which of course was founded in Oxford University in the Second World War and also Baroness Barbara Castle the Labour party politician left the University two of her Amstrad computers. Unfortunately, she hadn’t had the foresight to also leave her passwords, but the University had the capability of hacking into an Amstrad.

Richard is concerned about ephemeral messaging being transmitted by WhatsApp and therefore not being available to archive or be published in some other form and this is denying the accountability that government should face under the 1958 Public Records Act, and he has gone on the public record to make these issues very clear.

Through the use of algorithms, the library is able to both preserve digitally and make available in most cases to the general Public, except for those records that are held under licence. But Facebook does not keep an archive nor does Twitter nor most of the other social media. Digital preservation is a subject of collaboration between Oxford and Cambridge Universities and indeed, other collaborators from a wide variety of sources are involved. Richard points out that the World Wide Web is a very fragile medium and presented a graph showing what has been preserved on an annual basis going back to 2004 and from that time, it is virtually zero.

I referred to his book Burning the Books: a History of Knowledge under Attacks. In this he explains how attacks on libraries and archives have been a feature of history since ancient times but have increased in frequency and intensity during the modern era, threatening their role in protecting documents that outline the rule of law and the rights of citizens.  He explores issues as wide as what really happened to the Great Library of Alexandria, to the Windrush papers, from Donald Trump deleting embarrassing tweets to John Murray’s burning of Byron’s memoirs in the name of censorship and argues that the knowledge of the past has some valuable lessons to teach us, and we ignore it at our peril. Already the Russians have destroyed seven important libraries in Ukraine.

In Q & A Richard was asked whether this digital preservation could be relied on over the long term. While papyrus, parchment and paper have all survived for hundreds, even thousands of years and we even have stone fragments going back millennia, digital formats change periodically and rapidly, perhaps every 20 years. But I have a lot of VHS tapes at home but no way of playing them. I have other forms of videotape and no way of playing them. I have some floppy disks and no way of accessing them. Personally, I am somewhat sceptical about this issue and still store a great deal on paper in my very crowded study. Richard remains confident that through the digital preservation techniques that they use records are transferred to digital servers that will be accessed into the long-term future. I hope that’s right, he must know far more about it than I do, but I remain a little bit sceptical. Nevertheless this is clearly important work, and it was indeed a fascinating lecture.

[i] The Chat function only goes up to 99. After that it just says 99+.
[ii] I discovered recently that Shelley’s daughter Eliza Ianthe was married to the younger brother of my six times Great Grandfather James Esdaile.

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