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From Issue #13 March 28, 2013

Locked Stacks

New legislation may thaw the British Library’s digitization effort, but it brings its own set of risks.

By Rosie J. Spinks Twitter icon 

Few institutions in the United Kingdom display the British penchant for rules and fastidiousness better than the [British Library][BL]. Every book published in the UK must, by law, have a copy deposited at the library, and it describes itself as the “custodian of the nation’s memory.” The library maintains an unparalleled catalog of roughly 150 million items, including the Magna Carta, Leonardo DaVinci’s notebook, the audio of Nelson Mandela’s Rivonia trial speech, and the world’s earliest-dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra.

It is sensible, of course, that those and other unique or precious items are kept far from normal users’ reach. But what’s surprising is that so many millions of the more prosaic items in the institution’s catalog aren’t particularly easy to get at, either.

No book may leave the library’s heavily guarded reading rooms — let alone the library building itself — and all bags, chewing gum, coats, pens, and water bottles must be surrendered before you can even see a bookshelf. Guards are everywhere, and one checks your photo ID before you enter a reading room. They also make you open your laptop to ensure that no torn-out pages are tucked within when you leave.

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