Ian Millar is an enthusiast. Right now, he’s absorbed with the new identity of the British Library and problems such as how it can take its place as a leading light in the e-knowledge world as well as solving its more traditional problems such as housing, maintaining and making available to readers some 100,000 new books each and every year.
This CIPFA-trained accountant, director of finance and corporate resources at the British Library, earned his stripes in local government and at the Central Electricity Generating Board before moving to insurance at SunAlliance prior to its merger with Royal Insurance. It was there in New York and in the corporate partnership division that he learned the mantra and some of the skills that he’s practising today: operate in partnership with people or companies who might otherwise become your competitors – in order to serve the needs of your stakeholders.
The British Library has any number of stakeholders. There are the traditional readers who come through the door every day to research, read and and ponder.
There is the government, which gives a stipend of some £80m a year and expects the library to take legal deposit of all paper publications produced in the UK and to be socially inclusive.
Three million requests for photocopied documents
And then there are academics from all over the world in universities and commercial research facilities who together put in three million requests for photocopied documents each year and five million documents through the reading rooms.
Millar is in no doubt that the British Library has to serve the needs of the new economy as well as its more traditional foundation. The library must take legal deposit of UK plc’s publishing output. Its treasures include the Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible and a recording of Nelson Mandela’s trial speech, as well the world’s earliest, dated published book – the Diamond Sutra – more than 9.5 million books and 47.5 million patents.
But it’s clear that while the traditional problems – shelving and maintaining books, making them available to the public – are real and pressing, Millar is fascinated by some of the newer conundrums.
‘Really the strength of the library is that it is right at the forefront of the knowledge economy. It’s a difficulty because it means we’ve got to adapt pretty quickly. Nobody really knows where the change is going to be going,’ he says.
A low profile in the past
And he admits that the British Library has had only a low profile in the past, and could do with advertising both its presence and its usefulness to the reading public and to researchers and inventors. ‘We are knowledge UK, but we haven’t really got the message out there.’
‘We are big. In the past we’ve been a bit introspective. We’ve known who our traditional users are and they know who we are, but we’re very conscious of the need now to show our wares. We’ve got such an asset here for the country, for UK plc and what were trying to do is get out there and show people what we can offer.’
The library’s strides into the world of electronic publishing so far have gained widespread acceptance on the part of its traditional users as well as newcomers. Users viewed more than 21 million pages on the Library’s website last year – an increase of 58% on the previous year. Its web-based catalogue is also popular and heavily used: six million searches were made last year, up 24% on the previous period.
An innovative website
The website also has more innovative features. It is possible to view two digitised versions of the Gutenberg Bible.
But electronic access needs to be refined. Business users in particular could benefit from the evolution of the catalogue from digital behemoth to tailored, account-management focused portals.
Millar believes that in research and innovation terms the library has what business and commerce needs. He is currently engaged in an exercise to investigate the needs of the business community and has found that there is a real opportunity to market its holdings more effectively.
‘In part that’s about electronic delivery, in part it’s about re-engineering ourselves so we have something much more like account management. A single point of entry and a single person will be able to direct you through to all of the services we’ve got. Over time we would be able to offer much more in terms of software so that users can navigate themselves into our systems and see more material integrated.’
Stewardship of public funds
It’s a vision, but Millar’s stewardship of public funds means that the library can’t afford any costly mistakes. He is clearly focused on best value for the public purse.
‘That’s very much the way we’re looking to develop. It’s a lot easier said than done in terms of the technology.’
‘We want to be at the forefront, but not at the bleeding edge. We have a responsibility for the use of public funds, so we’ve got to be just behind that. So we’re not going to be the early adopter, but when people have gone through the learning curve we can make really good use of the learning others have done and provide a really good service for our readers and other users.’
And while the vision is there, there is still some catching up to do.
‘We’ve got to get the building blocks right.
Pulling different systems together
We’ve inherited a lot of legacy systems from different locations. So one of our big challenges it to pull together all of those catalogues and put them into one simple, searchable catalogue which says what we’ve actually got.’
Resources are modest. ‘We’re using our own staff. To get best value we will use products off-the-shelf. And there are others out there, like the US Library of Congress, who are doing similar things, so we can learn from them. We can get best value doing that sort of thing.
‘What we then need to do is use the skills of our own curators, and their navigational skills to start to add value to that basic IT instrument.
And that’s going to be the next phase.’
It all sounds like a natural progression. The library, a huge resource for UK plc, makes catalogues and content available to all online. You might expect nothing less, until you consider the funding issues alongside the growing expectations of a public already used to accessing vast amounts of material via the internet.
‘The difficulty is that people using the internet have a tendency to think that they are getting access to everything on their screen for free.
Finding the right business model
And trying to find a business model that supports that is almost impossible,’ Millar points out.
‘We get funding from the government. Unfortunately, it’s pretty well capped and flat for the next three years. Meanwhile we’ve got the legal deposit, which is increasing at about 12% in volume terms a year. Add on top of that inflation, which for journals is between 8% and 13 % and we have a really tough job just to stand still.’
The library draws some £24.5m (in the year to March 2001) in revenue by supplying documents on request to readers through its Yorkshire-based Document Supply Centre. It also receives donations and investment income.
But that’s small change compared to demands on space and resources.
‘We get 12.5km of new material every year. The publishing output of this country is not very different from the US. The Library of Congress doesn’t get very much more than 100,000 books a year. And it gets a very large and increasing stipend to be able to accommodate that. We have real issues in terms of managing that storage.’
‘We are constantly innovating and becoming more efficient just simply to square those things. The DSC is a means by which we get extra revenue in to help support the basic needs of the library. But when we want to do the big new innovations we either have to find the extra efficiency internally or we have to look at partnerships.
‘With the Gutenberg Bible, we worked with Keio University in Japan. Each copy of the Gutenberg Bible is unique and Keio wanted to create digital copies of as many of them as possible. We agreed to make our facilities available in return for digital material for our own use.
‘We bid wherever we can for additional funds, we just got about £3m from the lottery’s opportunities fund which will allow us to put 100,000 digitised images onto a website. What we’ve had to get very canny about is spotting opportunities in funding.’
For Millar, squaring this particular circle is the attraction of the job.
‘It’s a lot more challenging to define exactly what your priorities are and exactly what resources you’re going to allocate, because it’s not as easy as saying let’s go out and make maximum profit. That’s not what we’re about,’ he stresses.
‘I just saw the library as this quiet behemoth with such an opportunity ahead of it. It’s just an incredible asset on the verge of a huge explosion in terms of making use of electronic document delivery.’