The Shape Of Libraries To Come:
The British Library, On-Line Databases And
The Future Of Electronic Research
Including Notes And Suggestions On Bibliography And Legal Deposit

To The Reader

This pamphlet resulted from an article which was commissioned for the now defunct (and sorely missed) New Computer Express. Originally entitled The Shape of Libraries to Come, it was published in issue 89 severely edited (with inaccuracies added!) under the title Advanced Booking. (1) A further article was commissioned for The Bookseller later in the year but was never published.

Version(s) of The Shape of Libraries to Come was/were subsequently uploaded to a bulletin board or two, though I’ve no idea if it was ever downloaded much less read. I had hoped to stimulate further interest in this fascinating subject from computer magazines and to find a publisher/sponsor for a short monograph but, alas, nothing ever materialised though I did conduct a more in-depth interview with the British Library’s Computer Consultant, Dr Alston. This is the result. I am most grateful to Dr Alston, without whom this publication would not have been possible.

Since my first interview with Dr Alston, the original article has dated somewhat, so although all quotes attributed to him have been reproduced faithfully, the article has been updated. In particular, at the time of the first interview, the British Library Catalogue was available on-line only from 1976 on (2); in 1992, one CD-ROM version of the entire catalogue was made available to researchers. Currently, this facility must be booked at the Main Reading Room Enquiry Desk. In due course it will be extended. As always, the principal obstacle is funding.

The controversy over the new British Library at St Pancras is also still raging. It looks as though the final product will be a much scaled down version of the original grand design; nevertheless, it is still a magnificent piece of architecture. As a regular researcher in our most prestigious archive, and, having had the privilege of visiting the site myself earlier this year, I look forward to its opening with relish, even if it does increase my journey time.

There is also talk of retaining the Round Reading Room for older books. If the Board does eventually decide to take this course, we will have two British Libraries rather than one. Which means that for once we will be able to have our cake and eat it.

Alexander Baron,
South London,
5th December 1992

The Shape Of Libraries To Come

The British Library is the world’s leading reference library and one of its major research institutions. As well as the Bloomsbury Reading Rooms it encompasses the Science, Reference and Information Services, the National Sound Archives, the British Newspaper Library and several others. At the Main Reading Rooms, Bloomsbury, the reader would, until quite recently have had to search manually through the main catalogue or microfiche for the books he desired, fill out an application form, then hand it in at the Reservations Desk. If a particular book is kept out-house, as many of them are, he would have to wait until the following day before he could collect it. This is still largely the case, but the HSS and SRIS catalogues are now available on-line from 1976 onwards. (3) And, over the next seven years, the British Library in particular and library research in general will undergo a revolution. Dr Robin Alston, Computer Consultant to the British Library and the man in charge of Reading Room access to its BLAISE computer system, explained what has happened over the past few years, what will happen between now and 1997, and what in a wider context will probably happen before the end of the century.

A Walking Computer

Dr Alston is an ex-colonial. He came to Britain from the West Indies and has worked for the British Library since 1976. He is no ordinary graduate and has five degrees including a Ph.D. in Historical Linguistics. As well as teaching Milton and Chaucer, 56 year old Dr Alston has also founded a publishing company.

From 1976-83 he worked on the Eighteenth Century Short Title Catalogue (ESTC), the aim of which is to locate every 18th Century English language text in every library throughout the world. Since then he has been a consultant to the Library on bibliography and computers.

Early Beginnings

The British Library was created by an Act of Parliament passed in 1972 which established a National Library for the UK under the control and management of a new board and incorporating the Library of the British Museum. (4) Though the computer system was installed some 15 years ago, the catalogue has been available in this form to readers only since last year. (5) The giant Newspaper Library is not yet included. Initially, three terminals were installed in an annex near the Advance Reservations Desk; now though there are five outlets situated behind the Enquiry Desk in the Main Reading Room. The SRIS at Chancery Lane also has computer terminals for readers’/researchers’ use. BLAISE stands for British Library Automated Information Services. The entire British Library complex, including the Document Supply Centre at Boston Spa, shares time with a main frame at Harlow, Essex owned by Rank Hovis MacDougal.

On The Move

By the end of 1997 the entire library with the exception of the Newspaper Library at Colindale and some specialist sections will have moved to a new location near London’s Kings Cross. The building, which will have eight storeys, will also have four storage basements running to a depth of 24 metres below ground. The HSS and SRI services will have 638 readers’ seats. The air conditioned building will be manned by 650 staff and will have 15 linear kilometres of open access shelving (for reference) and a staggering 280 linear kilometres of closed access material. The reader will sit at his desk and summons his books by computer. Below ground, books will be retrieved by library staff, fed into containerised electric trolleys and transferred to the book delivery desk. When his books arrive, a light will come on on the reader’s desk.


The current on-line system available to readers is very primitive; as well as being prone to crash it is extremely limited in the material it can locate. The following searches are typical:

A subject search for vampires yielded 32 titles; the word vampire only one; while vampirism produced only: YOUR SEARCH WAS NOT SUCCESSFUL

A subject search for women criminals led to the following:

crime:                510 titles
crime then women        2 books

The same search entering women as the subject term: 

women:              6,320 titles
women then crime        3 books found! (6)

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Dr Alston places himself at the disposal of readers, and then things really start to happen.


Although readers’ terminals can access material only from 1976, the entire British Library catalogue is now on-line for staff usage. (Except the Newspaper Library and some others). From the second week in June (7) this has been linked up to the On-Line Computer Libraries Center (OCLC) in Dublin, Ohio. This started life as a co-operative scheme between Ohio State libraries and was originally based in Columbus. At the latest count it included 6,000 US libraries including the enormous Library of Congress Catalogue, so at the press of a button Dr Alston has a staggering 20,000,000 references at his fingertips covering every conceivable aspect of knowledge from the 15th Century to the present day. According to him, with glasnost and other developments, there is no reason why in a few years time it shouldn’t be possible to scan the catalogue of every library in the world. The technology is already here.

Recently he carried out a bibliography search for a reader on the poet John Betjeman and located 231 references including books published in obscure places and translations into Japanese! The search he conducted for us on computer crime was equally impressive.

The word computer produced 114,493 references; computers a further 39,354. Combining computers and crime as search terms reduced these to 15; this could have been expanded by entering further cross-references: crimes, theft, fraud etc. Of these 15, a number of monographs were thrown up, a video, and even an unpublished typescript. All were located in American libraries, but by defining parameters it is possible to locate the same books (if available) in specific states or areas anywhere on the system. If for example you wanted to locate every book on George Washington in libraries in the City of New York, OCLC could give you a title and location print-out in seconds. Several other European libraries are already on-line with OCLC, and in another five years at most, every major library in Britain will have joined.

Going On-Line With OCLC

During the demonstration, Dr Alston was connected to OCLC for 13 minutes and the total cost was $9.88. This was at 11.30am, peak rate for telephone users. His assessment of that charge is that it is very reasonable. OCLC is not open continuously. “I can’t talk to Dublin at nine o’clock in the morning.” But it is accessible from London from about 11am till after midnight. Will it be going twenty-four hours? “I doubt it.” He explains that a database as large as OCLC has to be constantly updated, which means that it has to go off-line for a certain period each day. Is it accessible to the home computer buff? “Yes”. You can write to Dublin today and open an account. The only prohibition for the home user is cost. It is not yet possible to tap into the British Library’s database, but this will come in time.

Information Overkill

At one time the problem for researchers was locating material, now they have the even bigger problem of selecting it. Every year the British Library alone adds a staggering 5 shelf miles! One of Dr Alston’s favourite snippets of information is that there are now many more books in the world than people. We’re already outnumbered by about five to one, and there seems no way of checking this proliferation. (8)


The government has been trying to pressurise the British Library into charging for on-line services, but the staff have so far resisted this. According to Dr Alston, and this view is shared by the overwhelming majority of librarians and academics everywhere: We are opposed to anything which frustrates knowledge. You can walk into any public library and consult reference books for free, so why should the new technology be different? The Library does charge for its business information service which operates through SRIS, but this is a proper exception. Businesses are accustomed to the notion that information costs money, and are willing to pay for it. And as they are using the service for material gain this is only fair and reasonable. Individual researchers: historians etc, just don’t have the funds. The Library will also make a small charge if a reader wants staff to undertake substantial research on his behalf, but again this is only fair and proper.

How much does the Library charge? Dr Alston’s sessions are free until September when they will be reviewed. (9) Apart from that the Library will charge tenpence per reference for private researchers, slightly more for businesses. This barely covers the cost of the paper. The computer Dr Alston uses to talk to OCLC is a DELL IBM compatible, 386 chip and costs around two thousand pounds. This is connected to a laser printer priced at around twelve hundred. (10) Print-outs are instantaneous.

The Reading Room Controversy

The Main Reading Room of the British Library is surely one of the most magnificent works of architecture anywhere in the world. This has led to a campaign (spearheaded by Lord Thomas) to preserve the Main Reading Room as such when the move is completed in 1997. Dr Alston comments on this: “People are in love with this Reading Room; it’s a beautiful place, nobody denies it. But...what the advocates of keeping the Reading Room don’t fully appreciate is that once you go through that door, (pointing to the Advance Reservation annex) you leave splendour and you move into squalor.”

This is a slight exaggeration; the building is not unhygienic, but the facilities for both staff and books (which the average reader doesn’t see) do leave much to be desired. As Dr Alston points out, the new library may be less splendid (in a classical sense) but functionally it will be an enormous improvement on the present building. It will be well lit, spacious and provide a much improved working environment for the staff and, just as important, it will see the extension of on-line and similar facilities as a matter of course.

The Next Ten Years

Predicting the future is always a risky business, but Dr Alston is fairly confident that the next ten years will see the availability of much more information on-line; at present what is available is largely bibliographical data, but “...I would expect to see great compendia of knowledge...whole texts...all in machine-readable form, and searchable.”

This is not mere pie in the sky, the Bible is already available on disk, and with the development of the CD-ROM, the main obstacles to further development are likely to be financial rather than technological.

Who Makes Computer Searches?

The answer to this question is: Mostly academics. The answer to the question: What do they research? is far more difficult. Dr Alston kindly drew up a list of 175 recent projects he’s helped research (until 23rd August 1990). It includes everything from mind-control techniques in 20th Century cults to the history of the study of hieroglyphics to 1800: identifying all the editions from the beginning. “Shakespeare has been an industry almost since the beginning of the 18th Century.”

Studies of Jamaican population statistics 1655-1740: Hardly a potential best seller; the lady who requested this search is interested in tracing such things as the relationship between slavery and the economics of sugar, for a history project.

Victorian sex scandals: “That’s lovely stuff! and there were many of them...the other side of the Victorian image.” brothels, Profumo-type scandals, MPs and “...all sorts of weird and wonderful happenings.”

Time capsules: This search was requested by a gentleman from the Museum of Mankind who was “ discover that there were time capsules being buried...all over America.” One of the oldest was the 1936 World Fair; listings were given right up until 1989.

English sermons 1550-60: A history project for part of a book on the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots. This researcher was interested in quantifying Protestant and Catholic sermons. In spite of its being one of the more abstruse on-line searches requested, (one of many) this was a very easy subject to research because sermons tend to be called sermons.

Plagiarism and forgery 1700-1900: “...of course, there’s masses of that...everything was forged; everything was plagiarised.” says Dr Alston, especially many rare (and supposedly rare) 16th Century texts.

The exploitation of women as cheap labour: Most references for this to date have come through the Low Pay Unit. A lot of this material is grey literature and is stored on a database called SIGLE, (pronounced SIGG-ly) {System for Information on Grey Literature in Europe} a very useful file containing local government documents, technical data etc. According to this researcher, who is writing a book, the use of women as sweated labour is very much alive and well today.

Finally, to complete this pot pourri - bibliography of cookery, 1500-1800. A massive project commissioned by a large publishing company; 300 years of cookery, worldwide and in all languages.


The British Library’s BLAISE catalogue includes the following databases:

Humanities and Social Sciences Catalogue - this includes much foreign language material.

BLISS - The librarians’ information service (11)

BNB - three catalogues of British National Bibliography.

Cartographical Materials - maps, atlases and globes: celestial as well as terrestrial.

Conference Proceedings Index

Eighteenth Century Short Title Catalogue - which Dr Alston edited.

Music Catalogue (includes popular music)

SIGLE - The System for Information on Grey Literature in Europe, described by Dr Alston as a very useful catalogue of grey documents. Includes local authority documents, technical data etc.

Whitaker - the books in print list.

Other Databases

Books In Print (USA)

FRANCIS - a French-based system which includes considerable amounts of British and American material.

National Newspaper Index - selected US newspaper indices from 1979.

Also included are computerised indices on religion, philosophy, much American material, a Middle East file, and even a digest of world-wide news as seen from Moscow.

Down The Road

Down the road at Leicester Square, Westminster Central Reference Library also offers on-line searches including BLAISE. Some of the others available are:


DIALOG - the world’s largest with over three hundred databases

European Community Databases



Reuter Textline

In September 1978 the British Library awarded small grants and loaned equipment to public libraries in Birmingham, Leicestershire, Liverpool and Sheffield for evaluation purposes. (12) Many local authority libraries now have basic on-line search facilities. For example, I live on the borders of Lewisham and Bromley, and both these boroughs have terminals in their libraries which allow the reader to search the borough catalogue to locate specific books. Even the diminutive Penge Library now has this facility.

The Erasable CD-ROM And Beyond

At present, the information available is largely in the form of book references and abstracts from a narrow range of journals. The next generation, (now available) is the erasable CD-ROM. This will turn the database into a gigantic hard disk; it will be able to store ordinary, digitised, and video data as well as having an overwrite and correction facility. Prestel looks crude by comparison. With technology advancing all the time, it won’t be long before not only all the British Library and other major libraries are stored on OCLC, but you’ll also be able to plug in and read actual texts which will include photographs of television quality.

Dr Alston thinks the first texts to be stored in this way will be encyclopaedias and technical journals, but in ten years or less it is not unrealistic to suppose that you’ll be able to sit down at your home micro and flick through the complete works of Shakespeare, the latest best seller or even the current issue of Pravda.

A few technical problems remain, one is that transmitting video data is a lot more complex than mere text, but these are quantitative rather than qualitative problems.

Will the computer replace the book? Dr Alston for one is skeptical. “Who wants to read a novel or the daily paper off a computer?” He says further, “The book is actually one of the most marvellous inventions that man has ever made, and I think its use will go on for hundreds of years. Books and machines are complementary.” But researchers will have to adjust their thinking. Already a lot of older academics have been queuing up to use the new system. In terms of time saved thumbing through clumsy manual catalogues, the new information technology is already paying huge dividends for all library users.

The British Library On-Line Catalogue
In Depth

The following question and answer section is based on the subsequent extended interview with Dr Alston. (13) It deals in depth with the problems of book classification, “information overload”, database access and many other subjects. Particularly interesting is Dr Alston’s suggestion that a book’s bibliography should include a mini-review.

Dr Alston: On the whole, the more interesting kinds of topics that have been cropping up have been the ones that have been extremely difficult to be of assistance using computers. One researcher was researching the processes a script writer goes through when he transfers [sic] a play or a novel into a film.

Question: Nobody’s written a book on that?

Dr Alston: No. There have been some studies which come fairly close; I did actually find him two studies which were germane and which he didn’t know about [on OCLC], but of course, one of the problems is that until a scholar defines a subject as being valid for research and enquiry, nobody uses that particular reference as a subject heading. So [in this case] we searched in OCLC under pictures, films, cinema and all the rest of it, and that was just no help at all. I find these the most interesting kinds of searches because I really don’t much enjoy doing basic elementary searches for Ph.D. students; it’s much more challenging and interesting to find someone who’s actually working on something quite new which requires you to do some fairly sophisticated navigation using the databases.

Question: EPIC is the software for OCLC?

Dr Alston: EPIC is the total system, like BLAISE.

Question: There was a review of costs in September, [1990] I gather; what was decided as regards long term policy, costs and otherwise?

Dr Alston: There is a serious problem here because if you charge the customer for the very same service which at the moment I’m providing free, you immediately change the nature of the transaction: instead of the scholar coming in, being somewhat laid back, perhaps pleased with whatever you do and all the rest of it, the moment money’s involved and he has to pay, he’s of course going to expect professional response. You offer a service for which there’s a fee, then you obviously have to satisfy the customer that what you’re providing him with is worth what you’re asking him to pay.

That’s fine in the case of myself doing a search, but I can’t spend the rest of my life doing searches for readers in the Reading Room, which means training a whole group of curators who can take it over. And as I pointed out to the Library, to train a whole group of curators costs money. You can’t just take anyone in the Library, put them in front of that terminal and tell them to get on with it because you’d get zero results, and the customers are not going to pay for zero results. So at the moment it continues to be free...I have to use discretion...where a scholar comes in and says he wants every single book written about Samuel Johnson, and I can determine that that’s 260, he can’t have it I’m afraid. We do exploratory searches for nothing, then if it’s a very positive result and it’s a large number, then he has to pay. So far I haven’t actually found anyone unwilling to do that.

Question: OCLC is an academic database, but there are a lot of financial databases. Let’s stick with yours for the moment: JANET, the Joint Academic Network...

Dr Alston: JANET is simply a network which connects all the major universities and research institutes in England one with another. So JANET is simply a telephone network which enables you to navigate your way from one university to another. It doesn’t enable you to interrogate library catalogues or whatever.

Question: How do these academic databases differ from the economic ones?

Dr Alston: On the whole a financial database is a database; JANET is a network. You can get onto anything by way of a database using JANET as a vehicle, and the proposals are, in the next couple of years, to extend the use of JANET to beyond the academic network into the public sector and the private sector, which will then make it virtually a national network, so you would be able to obtain access to Cambridge University Library if [say] you were an ordinary citizen of Glasgow and you went into a Glasgow public library.

Question: Can private citizens do this now, the same way they can log on to OCLC?

Dr Alston: No. The point is, JANET is funded by the University Funding Council, which only has a responsibility for the Department of Higher Learning. It has no responsibility to fund public libraries or anything of that sort.

Question: Do you foresee a gradual merger of databases as with police databases for example? Do you think there will eventually just be one enormous database which anyone can log onto? Dr Alston: I think, for a whole variety of reasons, that the drift will be in the other direction.

Question: Specialisation?

Dr Alston: Yes. Because there comes a point with the volume of data, where the sheer size is counterproductive to searching. You just get too much noise. If you were to collapse all the DIALOGUE databases that deal with the humanities into EPIC and then did a search on Samuel Johnson you’d get such a ridiculous figure that it would be counterproductive. No one’s going to sit and look at forty-three thousand entries on the screen.

Question: You’d get that many on Samuel Johnson?

Dr Alston: Yes. Every article published and loaded on a database in the past fifty years; every journal of literary studies; every thesis; every book. It becomes counterproductive; so I almost see there coming a point where even a database like OCLC would decide to split itself into groups: [for example] all books printed before 1850; all books printed between 1850 and 1939; all books published since 1939...simply to improve the efficiency of the search and make it easier to handle.

Question: Can you see any way in which the quality of on-line references can be sifted? For example, if you were to take the Prince of Wales as your subject term, you’d get literally thousands upon thousands of references. Is there or can you see any way of sifting the references so that you can retrieve only the quality ones?

Dr Alston: Now you’re into the subjective area; who’s going to decide what is important and what isn’t? If you’re after scurrilous activities, proclivities, and you’ve already selected out all those references, then you’ll get zero results. I’m a great believer in extending the bibliographical record (which as you know is just a structured description of a book) to include something which you might call a summary, mini-review: a single paragraph, because what you cannot tell when you look at the record of a book on a database is - you can tell how many pages it has - but what’s the book like? Is it trivial, is it well illustrated or anything of that sort: you’ve no way of knowing. And if that book is located in an American library 6,000 miles away you’re not going to put through an inter-library loan just to have a look and then say five minutes later: “It’s rubbish; send it back!”

Question: How would you do this?

Dr Alston: It can only be done at the point of entry.

Question: Would you have a code system or a mini-review?

Dr Alston: It could be a mini-review; it could even extend - and this could be automatic - an image of the table of contents. [If according to the title a book is about] The Age Of Johnson: that extends throughout the last half of the 18th Century: what’s the book about? Is it social life, and if it’s social life what aspects of social life? Is there a chapter on cooking? Is there a chapter on etiquette? Is there a chapter on sex? You don’t know. Unless that kind of information is put into the record to give it added value, we’re going to end up with huge databases with bibliographic descriptions which are not very helpful.

In the days when, with manual bibliographical catalogues you turned to Samuel Johnson [for example], saw you had three pages to read, and you could think: “Ah, that’s okay, I can manage that. That looks interesting...” then you go and check them. Nowadays on these big databases you’re not talking about three pages, you’re talking about thirty pages of references.

I think it’s high time that we started introducing that element into the description otherwise we’re going to be completely swamped with unnecessary inter-library loans. The real problem is that twenty years ago you could come into the British Museum Library (as it then was) fairly confident that if anybody had written a book about Anne Radcliffe (like our enquiry this morning) the British Library would have it. In other words it was a one-stop library. As long as you could find the books, you didn’t have to go any further. [That’s sometimes a problem.]

That is now finished; there’s no one library on the Earth that can stock everything. Even great research libraries like the BL are having to cut back on books printed in the Commonwealth, books printed in the only way to find out what has been written about Anne Radcliffe or Samuel Johnson is to use a database. But if the database tells you “This book is in Illinois; this book is in New York; this book is in Edinburgh...” - what are you going to do: request them? Only to open the package and say “That isn’t what I wanted.” This is a waste of resources.

Question: There are developments in the on-line field though which may rule this scenario out: the Bible is already on-line. Now, there is no reason (in theory) why every book or periodical which is published by any major publisher should not be available on disk, and eventually on-line. It’s got to come.

Dr Alston: Technically there is no reason why that can’t be done.

Question: So you could do a search in the library and if you like the look of a book you’ll call up the entire text. Eventually we will reach the stage where it won’t even be necessary to visit the library: you’ll get up in the morning, turn on your bedside computer and link up to a database and read any publication in the world: book, dissertation, newspaper, magazine, in English, French or Russian. How far are we from that scenario in real terms?

Dr Alston: Technically speaking we’re there; the problem will be having the equipment necessary to facilitate it. We’re now talking about massive storage, storage that dwarfs Ministry of Defence computers. And this would create a very interesting situation, because if books were available, the whole texts in electronic form, the publishing business would disappear.

Question: Would it though?

Dr Alston: Except for things like Whitaker’s Almanack, the railway timetable, What’s On In London and all the things that you want to be able to carry around with you. Scholarly academic books would only need to exist in one copy. And if you did the economics of this you would then be told that in order to load the latest edition of Cambridge University Press’s Life of Samuel Johnson on-line in an edition of one copy was going to cost [perhaps] £35,000. Now, who’s going to pay that?

Question: That’s an interesting question.

Dr Alston: You could say then that we would have to set up some thing like the Performing Rights Society and that the copyright of that book vested in the publisher or the author, and anybody who accessed the text of that book on-line would have to pay a fee.

At the moment we have no system that could conceivably cope with that, but after all, the Performing Rights Society exists, and they have a system which copes want to put on a play, you want to play a pop song - you have to pay your money. You want to read somebody’s Lovelife of Johnson, it’s going to cost you. That would be very interesting again because how do you decide to cost access?

Question: But there would be savings, wouldn’t there?

Dr Alston: They’d be huge savings, you wouldn’t have to cut down half the world’s forests in order to print five hundred copies of the Cambridge University Press Life of Johnson. Yes, there would be enormous conservation benefits - if we could do it.

Question: So really the only obstacles to be overcome are economic not technical ones?

Dr Alston: Well, there are two kinds of use of a book on-line: I want to look at page six - that’ll cost you fivepence. I want to look at pages six to twenty - that’s going to cost you fourteen times five? I want a print out of the whole book, I can’t live without it - then you’re going to have to pay for what? Exactly the same as you would if it had been printed in a limited edition of which one copy would cost sixty pounds? I don’t know; nobody knows the answers to this because we don’t have any precedent, we’ve no experience to build on.

Question: You must be one of the foremost bibliographers in the world...

Dr Alston: No answer. [Laughing]

Question: You’ve written eight books on bibliography?

Dr Alston: Many more.

Question: How has bibliography changed since the arrival of OCLC and other on-line databases? Is your job getting easier?

Dr Alston: It’s a bit of yes and a bit of no. It’s getting easier in the sense that you no longer have to trudge around the libraries of Europe and the world trying to find out what existed [and where]. I did this in my early academic period. That was great fun. The period between 1960 and 1970 when I must have visited and worked in nearly a thousand libraries in the world from Japan, Australia, Europe, America, Canada...those were the fun days because you weren’t just pressing a button on the computer and getting a listing. You were like the explorers, charting new territory. And that side of bibliographical scholarship has inevitably gone. No one can afford it anymore. Travel’s too expensive and there are so many encumbrances now just getting across the Channel. So it’s a trade-off: on the one hand a lot of the drudgery has gone, on the other hand, a lot of the fun has gone too. It’s no fun sitting behind a computer terminal tapping at a few keys.

Question: You wouldn’t have thought that this morning.

[This comment provoked laughter. A researcher had wanted to search for variations of the word “buggery” in connection with his researches into the sexual mores of the Eighteenth Century.]

Question: Has the nature of bibliography changed as regards search and category terms or is it all still Dewey?

Dr Alston: This is the most interesting thing about all this; because of the computer’s ability to index different fields, we’re no longer stuck with the tyranny of an alphabetical catalogue which runs from A to Z. We can have it that way if we want, but we can have it much more importantly by subject. But, there is no agreement, (and I don’t see how there ever can be any agreement) on a permanent way of describing the world’s stock of books, anymore than you can describe the world’s stock of chairs. This chair’s different from this chair...within a mile of this place you could find over a hundred different varieties of chairs. We may all agree that they are called chairs because they are physical objects, but what about a book, which is a product of the human mind?

How are you ever going to agree on what you call André Malraux’s famous book on culture The Voices Of Silence, a massive treatise on the whole concept of modern art, but what is it? You can’t put it under art, you can’t put it under culture, you can’t put it under civilisation. Or aesthetics. What can you put it under? We have no word to describe that sort of book. There have been many attempts to invent certain terms to describe certain books, but none of them has succeeded. If you’re too sophisticated with a search term (as OCLC sometimes is), then you’ll never find the book because you can never predict how refined the person who catalogued it has been. If on the other hand you’re too general, you get swamped. If you used the search term God for every book on every conceivable religion you’d get three million items; do you want to look at them all? It’s totally ridiculous.

Question: That brings us conveniently round to throwing out the garbage. When I interviewed Buck Bloombecker for New Computer Express he told me that he keeps his office looking like a garbage tip, so that if anyone were to break in they’d think there was nothing of value there. (14) But this is a serious problem now with regards to what is sometimes referred to as the information revolution but which I call the information explosion. I have a catalogue here of a publisher which specialises in computer books. Microcomputers are a relatively new subject, it’s only in the last ten years or so that they have ceased to be a mystery for the man in the street. And not much more than twenty years ago they didn’t even exist. Yet this catalogue contains more than a full page of listings for books on MS-DOS alone; that’s an A4 page of small print.

Even allowing for a lot of this material being duplicated, there is still an enormous amount of DOS here.

Dr Alston: Not as many as you’ve got cook books. Everybody writes a cook book. Every part of the world you go to, the smallest village you can find, go into the local book shop and there is a locally compiled guide to the cooking of (wherever).

Question: If anything this reinforces my point. There’s so much information available. Walk into any large branch of W.H.Smith and as far as the eye can see you’ve got magazines: you’ve got two or three on astrology; you’ve even got two on astronomy, which is hardly a popular subject. (15) You’ve got magazines for property owners abroad. If you were to put all that on-line, where would it all stop?

Dr Alston: When all this started we heard all this talk about the paperless office. Contrary to that prediction, the more computers are used, the more paper proliferates.

Question: It’s not just paper though, it’s this fascination with collecting information and the simple fact that there is more and more of it: the information explosion! It’s nice to have this information, but what do you do with it all?

Dr Alston: The trouble is we are going to suffer, and in fact already are suffering from information overload. This can impact on history, on what happens in the world. Gandhi gets assassinated on Tuesday night at a quarter to seven; it’s on every television screen in the world five minutes later. In the Nineteenth Century news of the assassination of Gandhi would have taken three months to reach England. Now we have the theory of instantaneous access to information, which is what really worries me because the human being is not conditioned to respond to too much instantaneous information.

Question: Not only that, but, for example, bibliography is a highly specialised and very narrow field of human knowledge, but the point is, will it be possible in the future for anyone to be an expert on anything?

Dr Alston: That depends on how you define the word expert.

Question: It’s already virtually impossible to know everything there is to know about MS-DOS, and that is one extremely narrow field.

Dr Alston: If you take any subject that is recognisable as a subject, you can find references to it on-line. Take a really abstruse scientific subject, say endocrinology, or even narrower than that: the endocrine system with special reference to the pineal gland, you’re still dealing with an enormous volume of material, from Russia, Japan, India, America...on that tiny, minute subject.

Question: which brings us conveniently onto the question of the accuracy of information, both on-line and in the field of human knowledge in general. How much disinformation is there on databases and in books?

Dr Alston: An enormous amount.

Question: A lot of fields - religion is probably the classic example - must contain libraries of disinformation.

Dr Alston: Subject classification is absolutely riddled with disinformation, even something as simple as authors’ names.

Question: Is there any way around this?

[Dr Alston suggested a system of punishment and reward for bibliographers with the emphasis squarely on punishment, but we both agreed that this would probably be impractical, especially his suggestion that a custodial sentence should be imposed on any bibliographer who catalogues a book incorrectly!]

Question: It all comes back to throwing out the garbage?

Dr Alston: Yes, but how do you do it? If you throw out the bath water you’re liable to throw out the baby with it because in a sense, just as the experience of reading a book is a very private one, describing a book is equally private. We’re heading for what the proponents of chaos theory have been telling us.

Question: Which is?

Dr Alston: Chaos! There’s too much information; we can’t possibly sift it or analyse it, and it’s increasing, not decreasing. The more instantaneous communications become...the more the overload.

Question: The catalogue in the Library is still only available on-line from 1975 onwards; when are readers going to get what you’ve got?

Dr Alston: The question is, supposing the Library were to put ten carbon copies of what’s in my office in the Main Reading Room, what do you think would happen? It would be tied up with people trying to work out how to get any information out of it.

Question: The entire British Library catalogue will soon be available on-line?

Dr Alston: Well, one day.

Question: Is there a hold-up?

Dr Alston: Getting anything here is a hold-up.

Question: Are the obstacles primarily technical or financial?

Dr Alston: No, the biggest problem is getting everything the British Library has, described in a format which can be mounted in machine-readable form. That’s the problem. This is what an American librarian referred to as the 98% principle, which means that any libraries catalogue only reveals two percent of what’s in that library.

Question: Something like sixty thousand books a year are published in this country alone. (16) Bearing in mind that this includes such abstruse titles as European Concrete Directory, the International Directory of Crematoria and Who’s Who in Poland; whoever reads these, and such books as the latter are not necessarily published every year, but who reads them, who commissions them? They are so extremely specialised that their print runs must be infinitesimal. How do the economics work? What sort of print run will a book like the International Directory of Crematoria have, or Who’s Who in Poland? Who commissions these books? How are they published? How does the publisher make a profit?

Dr Alston: What publishing has always sought to do, right from the beginning, is to identify a market. Every publisher has to ask the question: If I publish this book, who’s going to buy it? And if he can think of absolutely nobody who will buy a certain book, then there’s not much point in him publishing it. So, if books appear on a subject as arcane as you’ve just suggested, the chances are that that publisher thought he had a market for it. If you think of the population of the English-speaking world, which is now 500+ million. There’s room in that five hundred million for books on absolutely anything.

Question: Yes, but for (say) a guide to London street markets...

Dr Alston: Why not? Tourists come to London. At least five hundred come to London every year who are interested in street markets. It’s your magazine problem again. They only publish these magazines because there is a community out there interested in the subject in question. And if there are more than five hundred people out there interested in it, then there’s room for a journal. How you get at those people is another story, because W.H. Smith only stock a fraction of what actually exists. If you went into parts of London with Asian communities, Islamic communities, or whatever, you would find a whole range of other books and magazines on weird and wonderful subjects you’d never heard of. I don’t think there’s a market for a book on the design of mosques in Regents Park.

Question: Most non-fiction books are commissioned either from academics like yourself or from people knowledgeable in their field.

Dr Alston: Yes. I happen to know somebody who is in medical publishing, and they publish huge, expensive books with colour illustrations on every aspect of publishing. Every one of them is commissioned.

Question: Who funds these books?

Dr Alston: The publisher. He knows that there is a market for a text book on [say] dermatology which will be bought by students of dermatology and medical libraries. They do their market research very carefully - how many medical libraries are there which will buy the latest, definitive book on dermatology? Three hundred - how many students of advanced study of dermatology in the English-speaking world? Four hundred - edition, seven hundred.

Question: That works well, but I get the impression that a lot of books, especially books on popular science, are subsidised by foundations or whatever.

Dr Alston: There’s an enormous funding of academic research books by the funding councils like the Social and Economic Research Council and so on. These tend to be books on subjects where the print run is so small (although significant) that they could never be published commercially. And that’s a good thing.

Question: Otherwise they’d never get into print?

Dr Alston: No. But, having said that, there is a tremendous urge now on the part of writers who apply to these research foundations to think of a subject on which nothing has been written.

Question: Is it worth it?

Dr Alston: If you take the long view of history, maybe; if you take the short view - we’re reaching the point now where if we don’t stop polluting the atmosphere and tearing down the rain forests, all this is going to be to no avail anyway, because we’ll soon be living on an uninhabitable planet.

In 1701 the total annual output that we recorded for the Eighteenth Century Short Title Catalogue, there were something like 1200 titles published in the English language; by 1800 it was well over 7,000. That’s what happened in the course of a century in terms of annual output. And of course, the 19th Century saw a wild explosion. The total entries from 1475 to 1700 is about 100,000.

Bar Codes

The above concludes my question and answer session with Dr Alston. Fascinating as it was, we covered only some of the ways new technology can enhance academic research. When I wrote the original article for New Computer Express, editor Andy Storer told me that a new library was being or had already been built in Japan which was totally automated. (17) The bar coding of books is already done in some if not most libraries, though not the British Library. Although the British Library does not lend books out, bar coding is an excellent idea both for security and tracking purposes. It is regrettable but there have been incidents over the years of people stealing books or wilfully damaging them, tearing pages out etc. A more persistent (and frustrating) problem though is that of books going astray.

This is something I have had personal experience of; on one occasion I was taken up into the stacks by a member of staff in order to search for a missing title. Needless to say, it was hopeless. A bar code which included some sort of tracking system would make the misplacing of books all but redundant. (18)

From Document Image Processing
To Multi-Media

A while ago I was contacted by a man who runs an agency in Carey Street near the Royal Courts of Justice. He invited me to come and see his new document image processing software in action. At the time, it was installed on two mini computers and was being used almost exclusively to process legal documents, but, he said, it would be only a matter of time before it was ported to the PC, and predicted that it would soon be used widely in industry.

Scanners have of course been with us for some time, but this software is much more advanced than the common or garden scanner. The demonstration I was given was most impressive. The operator fed a document into a flatbed scanner and the machine proceeded to build up a picture of it immediately on the screen. It could recognise and process handwriting, and “learned” so that as it recognised a particular script it read documents faster and faster. It was by no means perfect, but a spell checker was included.

The point though is that it is not necessary to convert scanned text, rather it is possible now to take a snap shot and to import this into the system as it is. This is known as multi-media and includes sound. To date, this has been developed largely for leisure purposes although it is increasingly being taken up by the commercial sector, but its potential is astounding. A full text retrieval, audio-visual on-line database, could be used to cover the entire world.

An Extended Database?

Dr Alston’s main objection to an extended database is financial; indeed money is always the problem. In particular, book and magazine publishers would not be too keen on allowing free on-line access to their copyright. However, it is true to say that in most cases, once a newspaper or magazine has been published it is quickly made redundant. You might want to read yesterday’s paper or last month’s glossy, but generally speaking only re searchers are interested in reading last year’s papers. Many books date rapidly too: yearbooks, annuals, guides etc. Many books are out of copyright or will never be reprinted because the demand for them will never warrant it. Indeed, many books are published not for profit or purely for profit but for academic purposes. (19)

Posterity Before Profit

In the United Kingdom, every time a publisher publishes a book he is supposed, by law, to deposit six copies free of charge with A.T. Smail, the Agent for the Libraries. One copy goes to the British Library, the other five go to the other copyright libraries (20) where they are available to researchers and become part of our literary heritage. (21)

An amusing aside here is the struggle which went on between the Keeper of Printed Books and publishers. As a small publisher myself I consider it an act of pride (or vanity) to deposit my literary masterpieces [sic] with the Copyright Libraries for posterity. One of the high points of my 36 years was queuing behind a young French girl at the North Library Gallery issues desk in the British Library while she was borrowing one of my own publications! (22) However, for a long time, many, indeed most publishers, considered Legal Deposit an insult rather than an honour. (At one time there were as many as eleven copyright libraries). The Copyright Act 1842 granted Legal Deposit to the British Museum; Bodleian Library, Oxford; Cambridge University Library; Advocates Library, Edinburgh; and Trinity College, Dublin. (23)

The penalty for non-compliance was a fine not exceeding £5 plus the cost of the undelivered books. Other libraries were to claim their copies within 12 months. They could also claim published works anywhere in the British Empire but this right was totally unenforceable.

Antonio Panizzi (1797-1879) was Keeper of Printed Books 1837-56 and Principal Librarian 1856-66. In 1850 he issued warning letters to thirteen London publishers; later that year, eight were prosecuted. (24) Two years later, twenty-one London publishers were summoned. Scottish and Irish publishers also earned Panizzi’s wrath. In April 1852, John Chapman, publisher of the Westminster Review, published an attack on the “forced benevolences” which publishers had to make to the (then) five copyright libraries. (25) In May, he was summoned and fined £2 for failing to deliver the January issue of the same publication! (26) Originally, the Library of the British Museum was always intended to be a National Library.

A Central Terrestrial Archive?

What I propose is that a central terrestrial archive be set up which will collect material published from every nation and supply it on-line. This would be a massive task and one which could be instituted effectively only through an international organisation such as the United Nations, but the advantages to researchers would be colossal. Grandiose as it sounds, such a system will in effect exist, albeit in a limited, loose-knit way, when all the world’s major reference libraries eventually link up. This scenario is less futuristic than imminent. (27)

Undoubtedly, the increasing quantity of information (and disinformation) scholars, researchers and laymen need to process will lead to new and interesting problems for us all, but having literally tens of millions of references at one’s fingertips is both reassuring and challenging.

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