by Mark Chillingworth

Interview: Richard Boulderstone on moving from IT leadership to digital

Sep 30, 20149 mins
CareersGovernmentIT Leadership

If I stand up from my desk and turn to the right, and look out and down from my office on any given day of the working week before 10am, I will see a queue waiting to get inside the British Library. No matter the season, weather or time of day, the plaza in front of our national library on London’s Euston Road throngs with people of all ages and social backgrounds. The British Library is truly a hub, physically and virtually. For those that wrote off libraries, like those that wrote off books, radio and films with the advent of a new format, the British Library demonstrates that cultural hubs of learning, business and entertainment are still very much part of the national narrative. However, digital demands are challenging and driving change at the British Library, just as they are its peers in education, media, publishing, retail or any sector the library users are researching day in, day out. Richard Boulderstone was last seen in these pages as the IT director for the British Library, but fast forward a few years and his remit and title have altered to the in-vogue job title Chief Digital Officer (CDO).

The British Library is a non-departmental public sector body, which means it receives sponsorship from the Department of Media, Culture and Sports, a grant of £95.1m for 2013/14, down from a previously reported £142m. The organisation has a wealth of revenue generating models as well, from high-end exhibitions, online services, cafe and conference facilities. In September 2012, Roly Keating took over as chief executive, replacing long-standing Lynne Brindley, he joined the British Library from the BBC, so has first-hand experience of information and the digital challenge.

Upon joining the British Library, Keating asked Boulderstone to change roles and move away from the day-to-day running of IT at the library, and instead focus his efforts on digital service. A timely move the business technology leader says as the British Library turns 50 and plans to ‘embed’ digital at the heart of the next 50 years.

The British Library faces two changing landscapes, that sponsorship from Whitehall is decreasing and its customer base, like every CIOs, expects a growing range of digital services.

“We’ve had big budget cuts of about 25 percent since 2010, so we have had to go through redundancies. We were tight anyway and didn’t feel there was much fat to trim away,” Boulderstone explains.

“Our customer base is changing and that is the major piece. As CDO, I have a user focus, looking at the needs of the customer and how they are evolving.” The British Library serves a wide mix of generations, but is very well used by students, most of whom are babes of the internet generation and thus the web is a primary information resource for their studies and research. This has created a challenge for an organisation with a wealth of physical information in its collections.

“There are clearly generational issues and we understand that the generation at university now expect that if information is not online, it doesn’t exist. Already our document delivery service is over 90 percent delivered as an email,” he says of the Yorkshire repository of journals and documents that are robotically collected, scanned and sent to customers. The reading rooms on Euston Road are not only a temple to the carefully penned words of Crick, Austin and Shakespeare on paper, but also the latest business, scientific and humanities thinking in digital formats with library members able to access, in the reading rooms only, digital information services like LexisNexis.

“The mix is shifting, the strategy and depth of the collections is broadening,” Boulderstone reveals. “Collections are becoming digitised, but we will always retain our role as a preservation environment with a mission of providing access to content.” He explains that 250,000 books have been digitised to its collections. Digitisation of a collection as vast as that held by the British Library is a costly business, but for the past decade the British Library has formed a range of partnerships to share the costs. It is working with venerable newspaper publisher DC Thompson, the Qatar Foundation and has previously worked with Google and Microsoft.

“The model is that the partner pays for the digitisation and has first use of the digital product, and we retain a digital product for our collections. We will continue with digitisation, but it is only one per cent of our collection,” he explains of the past decade’s digitisation work. More efficient digitisation methods have been assessed, but unlike Amazon’s Look Inside, the British Library is dealing with rare texts that can’t simply be ripped into pieces and automatically scanned.

The digital collections strategy isn’t just about turning physical information into digital information, for the past decade, alongside its digitisation programme, the British Library has been creating an archive of the UK’s online information to preserve the development story of the internet and the information on it. To create such an archive the British Library needed its legal remit modernised, a process that took our legislative bodies 10 years. It was 2002 when the British Library began lobbying for a change to the Legal Deposit laws that ensure all publishers submit an example of their physical work with the British Library. The Act was modernised in 2013.

Creating collections will only be a chapter in the story of a digital British Library, too. Boulderstone sees the library and its brand strength becoming increasingly involved in pointing researchers towards other collections, a role it has already begun to play. “We will not hold all of the collections, so we are providing access to material. EThos (sic), for example, is a directory of PhD thesis papers. Across the UK’s universities sits a wealth of information and ideas, but in a multitude of formats, physical and digital,” the CDO says. Boulderstone’s team has created a digital ‘front end’ to search for thesis paper content and track down where it resides. He expects this mix of British Library held physical and digital collections, as well as a series of online services connecting researchers with information from around the UK to be a key part of the future story of the British Library.

“The interesting challenge will be providing sense to a collection when we don’t own the content. So we must become experts on resources and where information resides, so we can provide guidance to our users,” he explains.

A flip side of the increased digital collections available from the British Library is that the physical library is in greater use than at any time, the CDO says. “We will do even more to make this a good place to come. The reading rooms are our core offering but we offer free Wi-Fi across the building and there are the exhibitions,” Boulderstone argues.

Behind the British Library, London’s Kings Cross, once famed for the seedy side of life is now becoming a hive of intellectual activity in the city. Google is moving into the new office complex being built behind Kings Cross station, a world-leading cancer research and treatment centre named after Nobel Prize-winning biologist Francis Crick is being built directly behind the library, and the St Pancras Eurostar station has added a real element of class to the region.

“The whole area is a good place to be and I think it has unlimited potential. People certainly want, in this digital world, to make real connections, so having a physical manifestation, as well as the digital is really important. We talk of the BL Buzz,” he enthuses.

Mobility is a key part of bringing the digital and physical together for the British Library, and Boulderstone was instrumental during his tenure as IT Director in providing free Wi-Fi across the British Library estate.

“It is all about customer expectations. Most of our users are young and they adopt new technology very, very quickly,” reveals Boulderstone. “They are using mobile as their primary tool and primary information channel, so the Wi-Fi made real sense to us. Today our websites, like many organisations, are focused on a mobile version.”

“I had a small team to coordinate the digital effects of the organisation and it is liberating as I’m not from IT and it allows me to get more done,” he says of his role. “As IT, you are seen as a cost centre, barrier or having resource issues. But it did feel quiet unsettling not to have a big team at first, but it’s been a nice transition and there is less fighting over budgets. IT gets a bad press, though, as too many people trying to serve customers don’t see the point of technology, so I see the CDO role as one of connecting technology with the rest of the organisation.”

During his IT career, Boulderstone has refused to work for CFOs. “IT is a strategic enabler and working for the CFO makes enablement really hard,” he says. “There has always been a recognition that digital will transform what we do. The question remains where the value is for online and physical and where we put the split,” he says of the continued need for the British Library to grow digitally and physically. We have a digital investment pot, but it’s not about budget size it is about how we use it. IT has a bigger budget, but to Boulderstone’s earlier point, he and IT have jointly recruited and share an enterprise architect and sharing and connecting resources and opportunities seems to be the real role of the CDO.

CV: Richard Boulderstone

May 2013 – present Chief Digital Officer, The British Library

January 2000 – present Owner, Ossia Inc

August 2002 – April 2013 IT Director, The British Library

March 2000 – June 2002 Chief Technical Officer, Looksmart

1997 – 2000 Chief Technical Officer, Thomson Financial

November 1997 – June 1998 VP Product Development, LexisNexis

1984 – 1996 SVP Technology, Knight-Ridder

1980 – 1984 Programmer/Analyst, Arbat