Caroline Brazier, Chief Librarian at the British Library, has devoted her career to expanding and defining for the future the role of the library in our culture. As she approaches her recently announced retirement, BDSLife went to visit her to talk about her formative years, her achievements and her belief in the future of the library…
A Life with Libraries
Building an ecosystem of libraries through partnerships and communities
How did you become interested in librarianship?
My first experience of libraries was playing at libraries when I was a child. I had a relative who worked in the local public library which was throwing away lots of old books. So, my relative brought back children’s books from the nineteen thirties’ and forties’. I was about five at the time and I just loved playing with these books. Within the books there were cards. I asked, “what are these cards?” When I found out, I started making tickets for all my dolls and teddy-bears, so they could borrow books. There was something about playing these games that fascinated and formed me. And then, using school libraries and the public library as I grew up, I remember thinking how kind and helpful librarians were.
Six months before I was old enough to join the adult library, I remember looking forlornly around the children’s library and one of the librarians asking me, “are you having trouble finding a book?” I replied, “I think I have read all of these”. She said that she would talk to the adult librarian to see if I could join the adult library early. I thought “Wow! The power of these people.” That power, I realised later, is the power to help people. I found the books in the adult library a treasure trove and I felt so special, getting access to this at the age of eleven and a half rather than twelve.
I have heard other such stories from librarians: the local librarian really helped me, really inspired me. I am one of those people who had really positive formative influences around libraries. I grew up thinking libraries are good things, libraries are good places, the people who work in libraries are good people, they must have rewarding, fulfilling jobs because they can help people.
When did your fascination turn into a career?
I didn’t have a clue about what career I wanted until my last year at university when two things happened. I went to the careers’ library, and there were so many options, but few which excited me. . Then I came across a box of information on librarianship and then, at the same time, I picked up a summer job working in a college library. I had already done volunteer work in libraries but this was my first real job in a library. I looked further into this career and decided to apply for a year-long SCONUL traineeship at Trinity College, Dublin. I was offered the traineeship. I then came back to library school in London. Then I had to find a real job.
This was at the time of the first Thatcher government and there was a definite squeeze on resources. I had decided I wanted to work in the higher education sector and I was offered a temporary job back in Ireland, so I went there, thinking it was for a year. Twenty years later I was still there. I worked in four different university libraries in Ireland from 1982 to 2002. Then I was offered a job at the British Library and I have been here for the past 16 years.
Can you tell us something about how you came to the British Library?
Working at the British Library came about through my final job in Ireland. At Trinity College Dublin, one of the 6 UK legal deposit libraries, we were working with the BL on legal deposit. We were developing the argument to expand print legal deposit to cover born digital material. We had voluntary arrangements to collect CDs and other hand held digital formats, but from the late 1990s we had been trying to get the law changed to allow us to collect online digital content. So, I got to know the BL and was fascinated by it. I applied and was offered a job and joined the BL as Head of Collection Acquisition and Description in 2002.
Can you tell us more about the history of legal deposit and Ireland?
The history of this link between Trinity College Dublin and UK legal deposit dates back to 1800 when the Irish Parliament in Dublin and the British Parliament in Westminster were merged. . As a consequence, UK-wide laws were applied to Ireland, including legal deposit in relation to Trinity College, Dublin. In the 1920s, when Ireland became independent the new Irish government retained many of the existing UK laws and wrote them into Irish law over time. So, reciprocal arrangements remained in place.
With the growth in published material from 1850 to the present day, the emphasis of legal deposit changed from political observation of a society’s published output to a cultural remit. Collecting legal deposit became a much more systematic process with mass publishing from the 1950s onwards and this has resulted in greater collaboration between legal deposit libraries.
Legal deposit, guarding the nation’s heritage, seems a huge undertaking. How is it possible?
Today, it is impossible to collect comprehensively because we do not know what ‘everything’ is. Traditionally we have worked with academic and trade publishers who market and promote their publications. With so many ways to publish today, you simply can’t identify everything. Instead of traditional channels such as advertising, we are more dependent on our staff and library users, who have particular enthusiasms and particular areas of expertise, to curate and develop collections that would otherwise be difficult to form. This is especially the case with archiving the UK web domain. We run annual domain ‘crawls’ where we aim to harvest a copy of all openly accessible websites. We then have a selective policy for sites which we harvest more regularly, even daily in some cases, to ensure we capture more of the fast-moving changes.
This is why it is important that we have a broad ecosystem of different libraries doing a lot of deep collecting. Not everything can be in one physical or digital library. The hope is that if you have enough people, committed to building collections, at a national level, a regional level, a city level, collectively we will build a range of collections that future generations need. We have arrangements with all the major publishers and this allows us to cover a high percentage of published output. However, many small, often local publishers, will have interesting publications in short print runs with little traditional publicity. Because we have a strong literary culture in the UK you find that these publications cover all sorts of subject areas. We have to pick them up through other means: a reader’s personal passion, or through literary festivals, for example. We try and use every channel of discovery to identify and ask publishers to deposit, but we know that there are some that we miss. You just hope that someone else somewhere in another library has collected them or that a personal collection is donated into a library that contains them.
This is the strength of the public library network which is very local. They have built up collections, in some cases over centuries, collections about their town, county or region. I’m from Fife and if I wanted to find out something very specific to my birthplace I would be prepared to use a wide range of libraries and archives as possible sources, the libraries and museums across Fife, the National Library of Scotland, or some of the big university libraries, such as St Andrews or Edinburgh, perhaps the British Library, depending on what I am researching. We are sitting on mountains of material in a network of libraries and we need good discovery services to help us identify what might be relevant to each of us.
You have advanced the cause of digitisation. Is digitisation the future for the library?
I don’t see everything being digitised, available online and beautifully findable for a very long time. We are continuously improving how to search, how to find out where material is, to identify it, to go and access it, but we still have a deep legacy from the analogue world where a lot of valuable information is buried in physical form in specific places. There is still a need for many library users to do detective work. What I have spent my career doing is to make that detective work easier for people and that work is going to go on for a long, long time.
People say, “isn’t it all on Google these days?” Well, no, it’s not. Services like Google and Wikipedia are a fantastic support infrastructure for people’s research. They are incredibly useful tools but you have to understand what they do not do, and use them alongside library services which they have not replaced and they cannot replace.
Is the role of the library today changing?
I believe the purpose of libraries is to give people the information they need to deal with whatever the issues in their life are at that particular stage in their life. It could be leisure reading that you are looking for, it could be education, to support your academic career, to support your children, your professional development, it could be information to support your business, it could be marketing information to help you set up your own company, or whatever. It doesn’t matter what your challenges are; libraries, to me, exist to support people and to assist people to answer questions. An academic library, a public library, a national library, each of these has a different role to play. No one library can do everything. They have to specialise in certain types of services and developments, so that we can be sure that they are of a high enough quality to assist people. Libraries have always offered and will continue to offer the power of information, the right information at the right time, to give help and support throughout life’s journey.
You seem to see libraries as a network or, as you say yourself, an ecosystem. Can you expand on that?
We live in an ecosystem of libraries and information organisations including archives and museums and galleries. They collectively offer a cultural and educational space for a variety of purposes. Between us we can support people holistically, not just as, say, a student or a carer or a keen family historian. . We support communities. There are really interesting relationships now, if you look around, between, for example, the BL and major city public libraries, which in turn links to and benefits users in their branches. We have a strong relationship with the higher education community, with research libraries but also with wider range of research organisations. There are interesting dynamics between public libraries and academic libraries, sharing their space and resources such as at The Hive, in Worcester.
Is this interdependent network driven ideologically and culturally or due to cuts?
I think libraries have a strong sense of mission, but funding decisions do play a role. In world where there isn’t enough money to go around, we have to ask the question about how we can continue to offer the public what they need without duplicating services. We have to work smarter. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that taking money away from libraries is a good thing but sometimes when you are pushed, when you don’t have money to do everything that you want to do, you have to think a little bit more co-operatively and think about partnership models. It is not important that, say, the British Library provides this service but that this service is available somehow to people across the UK.
Are we in danger of losing access to our collections because of a shortage of trained librarians to help access these collections?
Yes, I worry about the availability of professionally trained and experienced people. Volunteers can do amazing things such as helping keep branches open or supporting reading and other campaigns, but there are certain functions and certain roles that require trained professionals. Even to know what collection is where, what is available in small, local libraries, private libraries, public libraries around the country is so important. It is important to have professionals who are aware of what they have in a collection, what is rare, unique, distinctive while making sure these are publicised and also safeguarded, preserved. There are certain issues that I believe require professional staff, such as building and maintaining collections to meet the needs of the community and providing accurate and trusted information access services.
Are there other ways in which we can make savings and secure the future of library services?
The British Library has been working with university libraries on a project called the United Kingdom Research Reserve. Many academic libraries have duplicate runs of academic journals going back decades, if not centuries. Because people can now generally get access digitally, we agreed that we would reduce the number of physical copies held across the sector, and move towards a smaller collective collection, a shared collection. This allowed universities to dispose of duplicate runs that were no longer required and throughout the UK we have saved about 100 kilometres of shelf space. This has allowed the university libraries to redevelop that space with better student facilities, better services. Nobody has lost access to any information, only gained new services. And I wonder is there an equivalent in the public library sector? Because of the fragmented nature of the local authority network it is difficult to get an overview of historic collections and I know it is much more difficult for public libraries to get large-scale funding for these kind of projects, but if you think of the fantastic new public library buildings we have had developed, such as in Manchester and Birmingham, which the public love, I wonder if we could free up space for further renewal and redevelopment? Is it possible to ask if we could hold some of these collections centrally, then we could free up spaces and reinvest so the public can enjoy the same kind of benefits that students have had? That’s not to say we throw away collections but do we really need 20 copies of something? If we can digitise things, could we, for the sake of preservation, have 5 or 3 copies? I think that conversation needs to be had but there is no infrastructure at the moment to support public libraries in asking and answering those questions.
What are the challenges regarding digital collections?
Since 2013 we had the right to start collecting born digital content under legal deposit. What we have done so far is to look at publications which are digital versions of traditional analogue formats, such as e-journals and e-books. The first phase is doing a transition from collecting things in print to collecting things digitally. Now because of the economies of scale which it gives us, we have transitioned the big publishers first, giving us an 80-20 win in those traditional formats. That still leaves us with the challenges of the small publishers which is exactly the same as those I mentioned earlier in analogue publishing. We need to be able to work with the publishing community to understand who these publishers are and get them to deposit material. In some ways, the smaller digital publisher is much more worrying than the large publisher because it is much more likely that small publishers will have a smaller circulation and that the material will one day vanish.
Another challenge is the new emerging formats. We live in an incredibly creative period of digital innovation. People are creating new formats all the time. A publication these days can contain content and software. For the thing to work you need the software as well as the content. It could have to run through an app or on a platform that may become obsolete. The publisher doesn’t necessarily own the platform, or the publisher might not be the developer of the software, so, to use this content and extract this information fifty years in the future, we need to understand or preserve the technical platforms, the software, the apps through which this content was presented. It represents a huge technological challenge for us.
Here at the British Library we have a project called “Save Our Sounds”. Sound recording is a relatively recent phenomenon, so you would think it is a relatively easy process to create a sound archive. But the thousand-year-old manuscript is often easier to preserve than the cassette tape from the 1980s. Sometimes the more recent technologies are the most at risk of destruction. To digitise sound, you need the original equipment it was played on but there are only so many playing hours left on this old equipment. So, we have to prioritise what to digitise and continually hunt for old equipment to cannibalise and repair the existing equipment we have.
We are a very ingenious profession in terms of preservation and we will have to go on being ingenious to come up with new ways of replicating and saving this material in twenty years’ time and fifty years’ time, constantly recreating the original content.
Is digitisation liberating collections?
Digitisation is an important aspect of what we do. It started with scientific publishers who began producing material digitally and wanted to digitise earlier analogue material so that the whole of their offering could be made available. This hasn’t happened on the same scale in the humanities. When I think of the British Library collections, including rare books, archives and manuscripts, we have digitised many things, but we have not been able to do it systematically because it costs so much money. We have to choose based on a range of drivers such as what supports research best, what users are most likely to look for, and what needs preserving. Digitisation still represents a single figure percentage of our physical collections.
An interesting example is newspapers. Newspapers were never intended to last forever, they are printed on relatively poor-quality paper, so you have acidification, you have pages turning to confetti. It gets to the stage where the paper becomes so brittle that you can’t turn the pages without destroying the item itself, so we were worried about some parts of our newspaper collection getting beyond use. The only thing we could do with this collection was to re-house it and to digitise it. We built a large, state-of the-art, environmentally controlled repository for the collection at Boston Spa in Yorkshire to slow down the rate of deterioration and we began a partnership with a third party commercial digital publisher to digitise parts of the collection. They offer online commercial access services which recoup their investment. We can offer free access within the library to the growing collection during the partnership. This is helping digitise millions of pages of newspapers that can, at some stage in the future, be made freely available on the web. But this is still only the tip of an iceberg.
We have 750 million pages of newspapers in the British newspaper collection. Our partner has digitised forty million pages over ten years which leaves us 710 million pages to go! That’s over a century of work left at the rate we are currently able to undertake it. So, you begin to see the scale of the challenge. And that is only one large collection in one large library but if you multiply that up by all the analogue collections in all the libraries you can see the challenge that faces us as a community. We are long way from making content available, searchable in a digital environment.
Do you see commercial partnerships as the way forward?
We are finding new business models in this hybrid world of moving from analogue to digital, ways of paying for that transition. There’s no way that the public purse can pay for that transition now or any time soon. Some people were unhappy about the fact that the British Library had done deals with commercial partners but I don’t apologise for those initiatives at all. If it wasn’t for innovative partnerships with commercial companies, we couldn’t have advanced this important process to the extent we have. Those commercial companies are doing a great job in providing information to people using different business models for different communities for example, genealogy. They provide services which people are willing to pay for. And through libraries, people who can’t afford to pay directly, can still get access.
I am not saying that we can get rid of libraries and let the commercial sector do it all. I strongly believe that there is a right to information and I see the core of that right being delivered through publicly funded services such as public libraries, national libraries. But we need to be realistic and acknowledge that currently there is not enough public money for those public services to meet absolutely every information need.
As a librarian, as somebody who got into libraries because of the power of information to help people improve their lives, I would rather see innovative commercial services that meet a niche need that are delivered in a way that people find, by and large, affordable. Libraries also subscribe to these services so people who can’t afford or don’t want to pay directly can still access it. There is an eco-system in place that tries to ensure that people can access the information they need. I would rather that we had a rich, varied set of information services, including public funding and good, ethical partnerships with commercial organisations that can fill needs public funding currently can’t afford, rather than let collections and the valuable information they contain deteriorate before our eyes.
You have used the terms information and the people a lot during this interview: is democracy and the library inextricably linked?
I think so. I believe all human beings have a right to information and I am aware that in certain parts of the world people can’t exercise that right. I feel personally very fortunate to live in an advanced, western democracy. I think to be an informed citizen is a very important part of that democracy. I think you have an obligation to be an informed citizen so that you can actively take part in the democratic process. It is a two-way deal. People need to be able to get access to the information that they need to inform their decisions and choices and opinions. They can then use that to act in an open and free society. To me, access to information is an absolutely critical part of what public funding must provide.
What advice would you give to anyone entering the profession?
Sometimes you hear people say, “libraries are dying.” I don’t believe that at all. I am proud that information organisations constantly reinvent themselves because the information environment within which we are working is constantly evolving. There is no shortage of opportunities for information professionals.
When I entered the profession, the consensus was you had to choose a specific career path, such as academic librarianship or public librarianship. Once you were on that path you had to stay on it. Today, it feels as if things are much more liberated. There are many more flexible pathways into and through librarianship. So, I would advise people to shop around within the information professions, make sure you are aware of the much more diverse range of roles and jobs available nowadays. I am on the Board of CILIP and as part of CILIP’s commitment to serving the whole of the information profession it has just undertaken an analysis of the types of roles that people have in areas like information and knowledge management, for example. Within research, you have information managers, data managers –rapidly evolving, new models of information management and analysis – so people shouldn’t feel blinkered. There are roles working for commercial companies, public bodies, the NHS, and many more. There are new pathways between different strands of the information profession and there are more strands than in the past.
I would encourage people to make sure that they are aware of the totality of what’s on offer as an information professional. Be adventurous and explore different career options. I think the information profession is going to be a fantastic place to work for the next generation, the generation entering the work environment now.
“Caroline Brazier has made a truly exceptional contribution over her 15 years of service at the [British] Library,” said British Library Chief Executive Roly Keating. Of what are you most proud?
I have worked on some big projects in my career, including new buildings, technology transformations, service developments. I was very proud of what I achieved at the time and I am still proud of those achievements. But looking back, it is my contribution to creating a strong community of people that is my greatest source of pride.
I have had the great advantage to work with a fantastic range of people here at the British Library and also in all the other libraries I have worked in. I find that people working within libraries are wonderfully committed people in terms of their values and their ethics, so I don’t know if it is anything I have achieved personally which makes me most proud. Instead, what I am proudest of, and I hope that my colleagues would agree with me here, is the way in which the whole community of people has continued to evolve and develop around the major challenges facing us. If I think, for example, of the way that we have transitioned since 2013 to take in digital legal deposit. Nobody can claim that personally as an achievement, no one person is responsible for it. It’s a whole community of people who have worked together with different roles and responsibilities, each playing their part. But if it wasn’t for that incredibly strong community of people working together and pulling together, it would never have happened. To me, what I am proudest of, is being part of that community. Whatever I have achieved is because I have had the generous support of a fantastic set of colleagues and I hope that, in turn, I have helped them achieve whatever they wanted.
When you retire from your post at the British Library, will this be the end of your professional engagement with libraries or are you planning to stay around in other roles?
I am looking forward to becoming a library user. If that leads me to new roles, whether it be volunteering in my local library or on committees or whatever, then I may do so but I have no set plans. There are no roles I have lined up, but I will always remain very passionate about libraries and information services.