Sir John Bourn, Head of the National Audit Office, told Parliament today that the British Library is responding well to the opportunities and challenges of providing services in the electronic era, that the Library has undergone significant and beneficial organisational change, and that it has made important recent improvements to the services that it offers beyond its reading rooms. At the same time some aspects of the service could be made more user-friendly and the Library needs to remain vigilant in ensuring that the full benefits from its programme to convert material to digital form can be sustained in the long term.
Due largely to the advent of the electronic journal and the development of new publisher business models, the Library’s Document Supply Centre has seen the volume of its business decline by almost a third between 1998 and 2003. The Library has responded to this challenge well by embarking on a major programme of modernisation so that its services continue to be valuable to customers. It remains an important part of the United Kingdom’s research infrastructure and supplied 2.76 million items to customers in 2002-03.
Customers hold the Library’s document supply service in high regard, particularly for its speed, customer interface and breadth of collection. However, some consider that the service could be made more user-friendly, especially in the area of catalogue searching.
The price of the document supply service has increased significantly in recent years. This is partly a result of the Library ensuring that it recovers its costs at a time of falling demand, but also due to increasing copyright charges (which are outside the Library’s control). The system for setting prices is complex and users would welcome better explanation for the charges they pay.
Over two million people access the Library’s website a year. The Library’s site (www.bl.uk) performs well in assessments of its accessibility to people of all physical abilities. In terms of how useable the site is, the Library has improved considerably over the last few years, and follows best practice in a number of areas, though some users still have problems with layout and clarity of information.
An important aspect of the Library’s online services is its digitised collections, which consist of digital images of some of the most important holdings in its collections, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. These digitisation projects serve a range of audiences and have proved to be popular. However, as the Library is dependent on external funding for digitisation, it needs to work to sustain free access to such material as funding is generally concentrated on creating digital images rather than maintaining them. In addition to this, given the resources (in terms of effort and money) going into digitisation in the cultural sector and beyond, it is important that organisations carrying out digitisation collaborate to share best practice.