The Shape Of Libraries To Come:
Introduction To The Internet Edition

The pamphlet you are about to read was first published in March 1993. At that time the British Library Humanities Reading Rooms were based at Bloomsbury. The move to St Pancras, and the closure of the SRIS reading rooms at Holborn and Aldwych (which have also been transferred to St Pancras), was delayed, controversial, over-budget, and in the end somewhat less grand than intended, but all that has been overshadowed by the growth of the Internet, which has mushroomed exponentially and has in effect taken research out of the archive and into the living room (or even the bedroom). For the first time in history, a significant percentage of humanity has instant access to the finest archives in the world literally at the click of a mouse button. The consequences of this have been truly staggering.

Recently, a fellow reader (who uses the Library’s patent service) commented that the Patent Library is now a white elephant. Virtually all patent searches and inquiries are conducted on-line, and most of the time the place is empty. This is not so much a criticism as a tribute to the power of the Internet (by which I mean the WorldWideWeb, E-Mail, UseNet, and all related phenomena). I find it difficult to believe that less than ten years ago I sat in an annexe to the Round Reading Room with Dr Robin Alston and marvelled at the way he accessed the catalogues of far off libraries through OCLC, scanning them for difficult to find titles, from which he would retrieve at most extensive bibliographical data. At that time, sessions were limited to a mere handful of readers and had to be booked in advance. Nowadays, the man in the street, the housewife, and even the primary school student thinks nothing of downloading an entire magazine or book, and if it is in a foreign language, no problem, it can be translated into English on-line.

My own criticisms about the new building - if they can be called that - are more of a personal nature. Splendid though it is, it is a poor substitute for the Round Reading Room, and although the Humanities Reading Rooms are now open late four nights a week rather than three, they close at 8pm rather than nine. Delivery times though are much improved, and SRIS books can now be read in the Humanities Reading Rooms (a privilege I was granted grudgingly on only one occasion at Bloomsbury).

Although both the front cover and the British Library Cataloguing In Publication Data have been reproduced faithfully (as faithfully as HTML will allow), a few minor stylistic and textual alterations have been made to this publication.

Alexander Baron,


August 24, 2002

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