White Paper raises concerns about access to the nation’s digital past

Published: 21 May 2019

People are struggling to access a treasure trove of the UK’s modern digital archives due to physical, technological and legal barriers, academics have warned in a White Paper published today.

Image of a neat row of computers and keyboards

People are struggling to access a treasure trove of the UK’s modern digital archives due to physical, technological and legal barriers, academics have warned in a White Paper published today.

The paper says that unless regulations are changed to take account of user needs in the fast-paced modern world then this priceless national digital resource could become obsolete for future generations.

By law since 1662 in England, and from 1710 throughout Britain, a group of legal deposit libraries have been entitled to receive a copy of every book, map, sheet music, newspaper, magazine or journal that is published. In 2013, this system evolved and was expanded to digital form – including blogs, e-books, e-journals and the entire UK web domain.

This has allowed, for example, UK-based websites to be preserved for posterity with regular snapshots and updates taken so future historians can track how webpages evolved over time.

These regulations – now covering both print and electronic materials - have ensured our nation’s publications, our intellectual and cultural history, and our national life, are collected and preserved for future generations.

Ironically, under the terms of current legislation based on access to the original printed formats, this digital treasure trove can only be accessed by visiting the reading rooms of the copyright libraries, despite its electronic form.

Now in the first research on this topic, a team led by the University of Glasgow have today published their Digital Library Futures White Paper, looking at how to make the nation’s e- publishing memory more usable in today’s digital universe.

The project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, researched how e-legal deposits affected the UK academics institutions tasked with enacting the regulations and their users.

The paper says: “Access protocols for NPLD (Non-Print Legal Deposits) fail to support information seeking behaviour and user needs in respect of digital library collections. Users increasingly rely upon personal devices and specialist software, and remote access to materials, whereas NPLD was designed to mirror access to print legal deposit collections.”

The White Paper is being launched today at a symposium held at the University of Cambridge Library.

Dr Paul Gooding, a Lecturer in Information Studies at the University of Glasgow’s College of Arts, led the Digital Library Futures research, said: “For deposit libraries they now have access to digital collections in unprecedented depth and breadth. However, we want to see the nation’s digital memory more usable for the public, scholars and future generations.

“All this digital material is being preserved, but it’s not really being accessed and the way it’s being accessed doesn’t work for users. Obviously, we’re not in charge of changing the regulations, but we’re hoping our recommendations will help to make the non-print legal deposit collections more usable, and more in line with people’s expectations for digital content.

“We need to address the tension between a regulatory framework designed around paper and printed collections with long-term preservation in mind and developments in our society and academia which have made digital library collections a vital and vibrant source of knowledge.”

Professor Melissa Terras, Director of the newly founded Centre for Data, Culture & Society at the University of Edinburgh, who also worked on the project, said “The limitations that have been put on access to our country’s digital publications mean that there are many useful approaches to analysing electronic materials that we are not allowed to use, such as text and data mining, to computationally analyse this material at scale. There are also issues with making this material more accessible to those with disabilities.”

“We hope that by undertaking this user study, we can show that the current legal frameworks need to be revised, and that user needs have to be made a priority, so that we can get the best out of the electronic records that the legal-deposit libraries are doing such a good job in preserving for future generations”.

“The libraries themselves know the value and breadth of these digital collections, and we must work with publishers and government to find ways to break the out-of-date restrictions which have been put on accessing our digital history”.

The White Paper findings included:

  • Non-Print Legal Deposit (NPLD) regulations have had a positive impact in that they have secured digital collections in unprecedented depth and breath
  • But the value to users hasn’t been fully realised due to barriers in the regulations and a lack of attention to users in the formulation and implementation of NPLD
  • A need to adopt an approach which considers today’s and future needs for openness and wider access to these nationally important digital collections for the public and scholars.
  • Recognising that digital materials represent a major shift in society and research and re-evaluate whether print media are the most useful reference point for these discussions.

Among the paper’s recommendations are:

  • The development of a user forum to help in the design of service. And a working group to address challenges posed by new models of publishing and licencing, particularly Open Access.
  • Collaboration between libraries, publishers and user groups to promote and understand the uniqueness and value of the collections and to increase awareness of changes in how researchers and scholars work.

Digital Library Futures is a two year Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project. Led by the University of Glasgow, the project also included the University of Edinburgh, University of East Anglia, University College London, the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford and Cambridge University Library.

Link to the full paper: “Digital Library Futures – Towards User-Centric Evaluation of UK Non-Print Legal Deposit” 

The paper is being launched at a symposium at the University of Cambridge Library on 21st May with an audience from across Europe. 


First published: 21 May 2019

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