Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Good afternoon. Could I welcome our visitors and witnesses today and say what a pleasure it is to see some very familiar faces: Lord Eatwell, who is Chairman of the British Library Board, Sir Brian Follett, who many of us will relate to Warwick University where he has recently been Vice Chancellor, and of course Sir Brian is Chairman of Research Support Libraries Group. You are a very familiar face, Howard. You have been in front of this Committee many times, always wearing a different hat. Lynne Brindley is Chief Executive of the British Library and the first professional librarian who has ever been Chief Executive of the Library. Welcome indeed. It is nice to have someone who has had experience of Leeds University and the London School of Economics. I am going to ask if Lord Eatwell wants to kick off by giving a short presentation covering some of the issues. This Committee takes very seriously its role in terms of not only carrying out investigations into particular topics, and some of you will know that we have just finished an investigation into the Individual Learning Councils which will be published on Wednesday, but we also like to keep in touch with those prime movers in the educational sector and across the piste where we can call people in to find out what the situation is in respect of their particular expertise. We have had all the teaching unions recently before the Committee to find out how they feel about life. We found rather differently than they were telling their annual conferences. We have never had the British Library and we think that is rather remiss of this Committee, and so here you are. Lord Eatwell, would like to kick off?

  (Lord Eatwell) Chairman, thank you very much indeed for inviting us to your hearings. Perhaps the reason you have not had the British Library here before is of course because the British Library comes under DCMS, not DfES but, despite that, well over half of all the Library's activities are devoted to the support of higher education research. It is an integral part of the national research infrastructure. Just to place the Library for you, in a recent survey of British and American research libraries by an organisation called the American Association of Research Libraries the British Library was ranked number one, the best in the world, narrowly ahead of Harvard and Yale. The next UK library, which is that of Cambridge University, was ranked 65th. The reason why UK university libraries can sustain excellent research provision is that at the centre of the system stands the British Library. For example, whereas a good university library would collect around 10,000 periodicals, the British Library has a collection covering 150,000 periodicals, 55,000 of which are current. If you like, the British Library is the library of last resort for British higher education. At the core of the British Library stands its collections. Without its comprehensive collections the Library would be incapable of performing this vital national role. Those collections, let me say, are increasing by 12 kilometres per year, so managing them, ensuring access to them and storing them are all huge tasks for the British Library. Despite the fact that we are DCMS funded, the British Library takes an active role in developing close ties with UK higher education. The memorandum we submitted to you describes some of the initiatives in which the Library is involved. I would like to stress two of them which may be of interest to the Committee. First, there is the strategic alliance which we have just formed with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which will be the basis of strategic collaboration going forward. Secondly, there is our work with the Research Support Libraries Group chaired by Sir Brian Follett. Sir Brian's group is charged with advising on development of a national strategy for research library provision and you will be interested to know that there is not one as yet. It is clear to me that the development of such a strategy is essential to ensure that UK researchers in all disciplines have access to world class information services and at the centre of that information system will stand the British Library. I wonder if it would be appropriate for me to ask Sir Brian to come in now to tell you about the work of the Research Support Libraries Group.
  (Sir Brian Follett) Let me reiterate that I think we should view the research information resources as important a part of the research infrastructure as we would a high energy nuclear physics facility or laboratories. It is one of the bedrocks upon which it is built. Currently the UK has a good system. One is not saying that the UK system is failing. All the evidence is that we have a good system and it is built around university collections but Lord Eatwell has pointed out the vital role that the British Library has traditionally and still does play. It is really the reason why individual university research libraries need not purchase as much material as their peers in the United States. Back of envelope calculations suggest that were the British Library to disappear, for example, libraries would have to increase their expenditure on books and periodicals, and periodicals really lie at the heart of research, from about £150million a year, which is their current expenditure across Britain, to about £400 million a year. That is really very good value for money and we will come back to that in a few minutes. We think that the structure is at risk though in the long run because of three things. The first is that inflation in this area traditionally has run at three times RPI. That is hard fact, ten per cent per annum inflation in periodical prices. Secondly, the total volume of material is rising rapidly in the knowledge economy. I am not talking about the Internet. I am talking about scholarship and research. Thirdly, the whole business is being transformed under our eyes, by the world wide web and by IT. Suddenly the capacity and the need to have libraries may not appear to be quite as important since one can access the material electronically. Everybody knows these facts. They are not rocket science. All countries are grappling with them. We thought we wanted to try and grapple with them in a way which would set the UK on a course which would keep its research libraries in a strong position. We really want to try and produce much more coherence in the system. I think we are really trying to look at three ideas: first of all to improve library co-operation. It can always be improved. Everybody can co-operate more strongly, but particularly in terms of access, perhaps optimising the spend on books so that there is less duplication, and storage of older material. At a national level the access of researchers to specialised material, for example, foreign language material, is very difficult. If only six or eight institutions are collecting it, it really would make a lot of sense if there were some strategic overview in that particular area. We have also got to handle the legacy collection. We have thrown a few figures at you. We think there are around 300 million books on the shelves of university libraries and the British Library. Not all that material will be needed for ever more. We are talking particularly about science periodicals that have a life span of a decade. We must have long term legacy plans in place. So far ideas have bubbled up from below and it has worked, but I think the IT system has changed it. The big new idea, and this is the one that is quite interesting, is to move to try and create something like a national electronic research library. It sounds rather fancy. I suppose it is really; rather arrogant in some ways. It is a new idea in one way but it is not a new idea in other ways. Fifty-odd years ago in the years after the Second World War the scientists of those days created a scientific periodical collection nationally. They put it in the Science Museum in South Kensington. Later it was run by the old Department of Scientific and Industrial Research [DSIR], which I suppose is three versions back from the Office of Science and Technology. Then in the early seventies it was fused with the National Central Library to create the British Library. It was an idea where we would try to solve a problem at a national level which would otherwise be exceedingly difficult to solve separately. It would be much better to act jointly rather than separately. It is that kind of principle that we are thinking about here, not working from a blank sheet of paper. Seven years ago Lynne Brindley and I were instrumental in creating what you might call an embryonic electronic research library. It has a fancy acronym (DNER) but it does not really matter. It is run by HEFCE through the JISC, which is the network, the system down in Bristol operated on behalf of all the universities in the UK that drives the electronic network. What we are interested in trying to do is to grow that. We do not want to create an overbearing organisation. We have not worked out the details of this yet but in some ways it has to be a kind of virtual organisation. It can be quite small but what it will do is act as a gateway through which any individual will access the material that lies behind the screen without really knowing it. That is what most of us do all the time when we enter the world wide web. You tap in and you come up with something. You do not know how you do it but you know somewhere there must be little gremlins running around doing it all for you. Our idea is that we should access this research material in this way. The electronic materials may come from your own local library. They may well come from a library elsewhere in the UK, but you may not know that necessarily. They may well come from overseas. They may come from material which this organisation licenses nationally on behalf of the nation. We do quite a bit of that already. Some millions of pounds a year are spent licensing material. This combination is put together in a virtual library. At a specific level the kind of issue we think the library will handle is obviously the collection policies. What are you going to collect? What is worth collecting? There is an awful lot of material out there which will not be worth collecting. It is what libraries do, differential collection in effect. Secondly, to generate search engines and catalogues. They are remarkably weak. It is a bit depressing to realise that undergraduates often enter the world wide web through the Google search engines. These are very primitive search engines, so we need much better ones. Thirdly, we need some kind of national strategy for what we choose to digitise as distinct from leaving it in book form, because this is perhaps older material. Fourthly, we need a strategy over electronic preservation. All of these things are going on. As John has emphasised, they are really going on as pieces, not being pulled together. We would like to develop platforms and new tools for triggering better ways of scholarly communication. Are there ways which are more modern? Are there ways which are more cost effective? The whole enterprise will depend on the Super JANET network, which is the university network, and so its location, in which it is under JISC, will be an important part. We envisage it as being a creature of the funding councils plus the British Library, along with the OST, (because that is the research councils), hopefully the Department of Health, (and they are creating an electronic library of health), and a number of private research libraries. The main thrust is to put Britain in a position where it could be unique, certainly among large countries, with a world structure which would evolve over time. We set it up and then it runs for ten to 20 years. It is not a great absorber of resources but it will slowly shift the centre of balance, the centre of gravity, of the research library collections away from the traditional way, which is to have individual research libraries scattered geographically around the country. As the electronic world comes to dominate it, so more and more of that material can be held "centrally". It is not actually held, but you go through a central organisation to get at it, and we think it is that sort of model—the details can be worked out later—which will keep Britain in the forefront of this information resource business which we need to be in if we are going to be in research.

  2. Thank you very much for that. We will in a minute come back to our other two witnesses for the link-up with higher education, but could we press a few questions on both of you? Your final report is not out yet?
  (Sir Brian Follett) Oh, no.

  3. When is it due?
  (Sir Brian Follett) September/October.

  4. Will it have cost implications? As I understand it, you are trying to keep us at number one in the world, certainly world class.
  (Sir Brian Follett) Yes.

  5. And of course we all understand, with the changes that you have mentioned, that it is not going to come free.
  (Sir Brian Follett) It will not come free.

  6. But are you going to be able to put a cost on it?
  (Sir Brian Follett) Yes, we shall be able to put a cost on the various components, of which the electronic library is one. We already spend quite a bit of money—and Howard can tell you more about how much money we are already spending—but it may be a question as much of re-focusing quite a lot of current expenditure. It may go up slightly.

  7. In terms of the way you conduct an inquiry, in terms of who you have been talking to and the broadness of the consultation, can you give us some indication of how broadly you have consulted, only because, reading through all the material that you let us have, on the one hand, while we want you to be an international centre for information and learning, we wondered what the balance was between what you do and who uses it, in other words British taxpayers, British institutions, British researchers. Are you open enough to that market?
  (Sir Brian Follett) I would hope we are. We started by asking the researchers what they believed they wanted ten or 20 years from now, and we focussed on young researchers who will be using it in 20 years' time. The story was very much as expected. We were very struck by the need to maximise access for all researchers in the United Kingdom. These are professional researchers. We are using the word in that sense, not somebody who just happens to have an interest. We are really dealing right now with an issue over professional research only. The number of people in the UK who will access these facilities and who currently access all the libraries in the country, including the British Library, is huge. We did a quick estimate of Sir Howard's old university and worked out that there must be about 4,000 researchers on the campus at Southampton. We can take that as read for at least 20 to 25 of the universities around the country, so we are talking of very large numbers of researchers. We would hope that this would involve most of the public sector, the government research institutes. I do not think we have got round to how the private researchers working in GlaxoSmithKline will access it. It is an international business and I imagine that there will be a very strong linkage between whatever facilities we establish and the facilities that are established elsewhere in the world. This normally operates in the universities by free reciprocal access, so you do not really know that you have accessed a server in Ohio or in Beijing. That is fixed. We have got to be the people behind the scene putting it together for the researchers.

  8. That is interesting. The Guardian this morning had a very interesting article on your Boston Spa operation, which we are delighted is in Boston Spa, and some of my colleagues may want to press you on that. I quote from one Mr Walker, a customer service operator with the British Library. He says: "We have 17,000 requests daily. Ninety per cent of them are e-mailed from around the world. The US is our largest market outside the UK." He uses the term "market". This is all free access. No-one actually pays for the information that they get.
  (Lord Eatwell) Oh, no. They pay.

  9. How do they pay? Tell us how they pay.
  (Mrs Brindley) The metrics of the document supply operation, which is what is run from Boston Spa, is that broadly we are supplying well over three million items per annum of which at least two million are in the UK. The basis on which we supply overseas copies is very much dictated by Treasury rules on pricing and so on and we would expect our overseas operations to make a net contribution. Overall, the Library's trading income is around the £25 million per annum level, and documemnt supply revenue is running at £17 million per annum. It is a large revenue earner—that covers in UK terms full costs and in overseas terms it covers the full cost plus a contribution to overheads, so it is differential pricing.

  10. So anyone in Sir Howard's old university or the like, would they be cautious about using the services of the British Library because it would have a cost implication for the university or the department?
  (Mrs Brindley) Maybe we can both answer. From our point of view usually the budget is held by the library itself so essentially, if an item is not in the library there, then the request will be referred to Boston Spa.
  (Sir Howard Newby) The answer to your question is that in general no, there is not any inhibition. Different universities operate different charging regimes at departmental level but the usual practice is to try to ensure that these services are free at point of use within the university. They are covered by the general library budget of the university, but practice does vary.

  11. Sir Brian, can I come back to you and to Lord Eatwell? When your inquiry is completed you are going to come up with something along the lines of what you have described to us today in order to keep us in the forefront of this and meet the challenge of the new technology. Are you being rather modest about what this will cost? Nothing comes free. Most other areas that I know about in terms of remaining in front of the global competition cost money; it costs investment over time. Will you be coming with some pretty hard figures?
  (Sir Brian Follett) We will be coming with hard figures. I do not think initially they will be large. What we are really intending to do is to take the existing budgets, which are running into low tens of millions of pounds, which largely come from the funding councils, and spend those maybe in a slightly different way but essentially the same. Then we will put it on a track whereby, if the idea works, and, for example, we negotiate national site licences for access to particular materials. That is a cost and it may well be necessary at that point to work out how that cost is going to be met, whether it is going to be charged back against individual universities or whether it is carried as a top slice. Those sorts of matters will have to be resolved, but I do not see this machine as a great absorber of new money.

  12. Lord Eatwell, can I ask you this? Although you are really responsible to the department of Culture, Media and Sport, and of course we have a very great interest in you because you supply so much for higher education and research in the educational sector, on the one hand here is money flowing from the research councils: where else do you get your money from?
  (Lord Eatwell) We do not get any of that.

  13. You do not get any of that?
  (Lord Eatwell) No.

  14. Can you explain the difference between your income streams then?
  (Lord Eatwell) Our income is a grant in aid of round about £82 million per year from DCMS plus the funding you have just heard that we have earned from our document supply service, plus a small amount of fund raising, usually for special documents or special books or whatever that are to be saved for the nation, that sort of thing.[2] It is rather a small amount. The key expenditure at the heart of this system will actually lie paradoxically outside higher education because it will be maintaining the collections of the British Library. We are suffering this inflation rate of about ten per cent per year in our collections expenditure. I should point out that our collections come from two sources. One is the amount of money we spend literally buying books and periodicals, which is about £13.5 million per year, plus of course we have copyright deposit which we get "free". The material comes free but it has to be stored, it has to have a curator organising it and so on, so there is a real cost of maintaining the copyright library. The cost of sustaining that collection is going to lie at the core of the system which Sir Brian has described. We are at a very awkward stage historically at the moment because, whilst digital materials are coming on line and we have to think about collecting digital materials, it is also true that more books and papers and things are being published than ever before. Digital platforms have not taken over from books as yet. They may do in 15 or 20 years' time or whatever; we may see a switch-over, but at the moment both are rising and so we need to sustain collections both of books and papers and newspapers and all the other things that we have traditionally collected, plus start to develop digital collections. Thirdly, of course, we have to develop a strategy for digitalising paper collections which we can then put on the web, which is actually fabulously expensive. If we were to digitalise the whole of Boston Spa so that all our materials were to be available on the web it would cost about four billion pounds.

  (Mrs Brindley) That would be just to do the journals, and not including all of the conference proceedings, reports literature, etc. It would be a vast task.

  15. Sir Howard, you have come in with this gang and we invited you with them. Are you happy with the quality of what you are getting out of this market?
  (Sir Howard Newby) Yes, we are very happy. The issues we are facing are more if you like the problems of success rather than failure. From our standpoint in the Funding Council we not only have to sustain the arrangements you have heard about with regard to research information but also within the universities themselves of course this has to be co-ordinated with all the libraries for teaching and learning purposes as well. You have heard from Brian about the Joint Information Systems Committee, JISC, which actually was set up a long time ago to establish a network which networked originally all British universities together, which is the joint academic network now. That has grown over time. It has also extended now into all FE colleges and through them into schools, so we are beginning to grope our way towards a kind of national learning infrastructure at all levels and all ages. While that has been going on JISC has also been involved not just in providing infrastructure but over time has also provided a lot of information services, negotiating software licences on behalf of the sector, providing data services. What we are seeing is a convergence, slowly but surely, of the activities of JISC on the one hand with the activities of the British Library on the other which has also been providing services. They are beginning slowly but surely to converge. Hence our strategic alliance. From the Higher Education Funding Council's standpoint we need to continue to ensure that all of this, both on the research side and on the teaching and learning side, is properly co-ordinated and as far as the users are concerned they are not too fussed when they sit at their terminals where the information comes from or who is delivering it to them provided they can get it quickly and efficiently and securely.

  16. So essentially you are happy, but are you particularly happy because it does not cost you much?
  (Sir Howard Newby) We are particularly happy because the service is an extremely good one. Looking at it from a higher education standpoint, as you know we are going to face a major expansion in the years ahead with regard to hitting our widening participation targets. That means supplying a whole range of services that span both research and learning to a much greater number of people, many of them in quite different settings from the conventional university library. All of that has to be planned and co-ordinated in a rather seamless way, as I said, from schools through further education colleges to universities and beyond. It is ensuring that we as a funding council do this on the one hand without inadvertently damaging the research base on the other.

Mr Shaw

  17. Sir Brian, you have said that the contributions that you receive when you are talking to researchers, and you said you were speaking particularly to young researchers, were what you might expect them to be. When you publish your report in September have you got a pretty good idea of what action you expect to be called for? What will the Government have to do?
  (Sir Brian Follett) I think we have a fairly clear idea. It should be said that it is all very interim. The Committee has yet to approve this.

  18. You can leave it to us.
  (Sir Brian Follett) I think we are likely to come up with a package of recommendations that will sustain the research library structure. One will be this library co-operation, which is existing, by the way. The second will be a number of comments about sustaining Boston Spa and the document supply centre. That is particularly a problem over the next few years. The shift from paper to electronics could undermine stability of Boston Spa, which has been there for a generation now, has been shaken and is being shaken as we speak, and we cannot allow that to get us down at the present stage. There will be comment on that and there will be comment on the scholarly publishing agenda. There will then be a kind of visionary statement about the suggestions we have for creating an office of the national electronic library. There will be three or four things. What will happen is that the report will go to the boards of the four funding councils—Northern Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland—and, I assume, to the board of the British Library and to the National Library of Wales and of Scotland, where there will be discussions over the autumn and into the new year. At the end of it I assume they will decide which parts of it they wish to accept. They will by then have looked at some of the implications in terms of cost and politics for putting it all on to the ground. I am very aware as Chairman of the Committee that we are treading across a number of boundaries that have either been created in the last 20 years, such as where the British Library is and where the universities are located within Whitehall, or are relatively new boundaries that have been created inside the UK as a result of the devolved territories, and so there is a fair amount of trickiness right now if you come up with any kind of suggestion which tends to join together government. I think we would all sign up to the fact that we wish to see more joined-up government but it is rather difficult to deliver it on the ground.

  19. The glue that joins the departments up and the various institutions is often found in the Treasury. Has there been a dialogue with Treasury in terms of the new strategy?
  (Sir Brian Follett) Not yet. That is because in some senses the precise financial pattern of what you might recommend is not clear yet. All I am indicating to you is that it is not seeking a vast injection of money, save in that area which in some ways is outwith this Committee of the need of the acquisitions budget of the British Library to be protected.
  (Sir Howard Newby) I think it is worth adding, Chairman, that as part of the Treasury's cost cutting review of science, which is currently under way as part of the spending review, both Lynne and I did ensure that the Treasury considered the position of the British Library as part of that review. As I think we are all saying, we do regard it as as important a part of the UK research infrastructure as the major laboratories and so on. That is falling within their remit.

2   Note by witness: The Library's baseline operational grant-in-aid in 2000-01 was £82.693 million. Total trading income during that year was £24.5 million. Donations and Investment Income was £3.5 million. Back

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