by Mark Chillingworth

British Library’s Richard Boulderstone sets out digital agenda for national libraries

Nov 03, 200812 mins
CareersGovernmentIT Leadership

Bankers, retailers and travel operators have seen their worlds turned upside down in the last 15 years and, as every CIO knows, the maelstrom was instigated by the internet. An oft-overlooked sector that has been riding this storm is the humble library. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our national institute, the British Library.

From its two hubs in Boston Spa, Yorkshire and Euston Road in central London, the 35-year old organisation has been madly flicking through its pages seeking the plot for a digital future. The author of this change since 2002 has been Richard Boulderstone, British Library director of e-strategy and programmes.

Like the English dictionary, you’d expect the British Library (BL) to be an ancient monument of learning and information, and will be surprised to learn that is in fact very young, with its current London headquarters opening in 1998, following nearly two decades of political debate and construction. Prior to the opening of the BL, the UK had a series of specialist national libraries, the most famous being the British Museum Reading Room in Bloomsbury, London, which is, to this day, one of the most inspiring rooms in which to consume our rich national heritage and culture.

By the law of legal deposit, the BL receives a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland, whether it’s a book, magazine, newspaper or journal. It houses 150 million items in every language imaginable and is used by 16,000 people every day. Among the treasures in its archives is the Magna Carta agreement, the first published edition of The Times newspaper and manuscripts from the Beatles.

However, the world around the British Library today is a digital world, and the institute has to retain its archivist role, while simultaneously re-inventing itself as a digital node in an online nation.

“Of our total collections, the amount that is digital is very small, compared to the physical collections,” explains Boulderstone. “To change the organisation – and to meet the needs of users – is the exciting challenge.”

This is Boulderstone’s first role within the library world, but not in the information sector, which defines his career. From the 1980s to today, Boulderstone’s career has seen him busily working his way up from programmer to technology vice president and on to his current role via financial information providers Knight Ridder and Thomson Financial, and web search engine LookSmart. “I have been trying to understand the information needs and blending that with the technology you have,” he says of his career.

Boulderstone is in a relaxed mood when we meet on Euston Road, having returned from holidaying in Scotland. Despite hating the requirement to have his photograph taken, he has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Looking back on a career that began at publishers Knight Ridder, he chuckles at the initial rapid rise from programmer to technology VP of the company over the course of 12 years.

He left Knight Ridder in 1997 to join Thomson Financial, the Canadian information giant that acquired London news agency Reuters in 2007. This was the beginning of a globe-trotting career that to this day sees him regularly crossing the pond. In 2000, he joined LookSmart, which at the time was still a major player in the burgeoning internet search market. “It was an exciting time. I had to be there,” he says. But two years later, he saw the writing on the wall, he says, and for family reasons wanted to leave Silicon Valley and return to the UK. “I always wanted to come back. Fifteen years in the US is a long time.”

The British Library was not only a ticket back home for his family, but an incredible career opportunity that enticed him. “It’s the same reason I’m still here. Libraries are going through a revolution and that revolution is centred on IT because the information we are providing to researchers is digital. It was clear to me then that there was a huge opportunity to define the future for libraries and it’s a unique opportunity. You rarely get to define the future of a sector.”

The BL is one of Britain’s most creative institutions and hums with active minds from academia, businesses large and small, and the cultural world. Boulderstone is also a great believer in the creative element of IT people and tries to instil a creative ethos into his team.

The story of the British Library

Situated next to the revitalised St Pancras station, the British Library dubs itself ‘The World’s Knowledge’. Housed in miles of shelving below the Euston Road site (and in a former munitions factory in Yorkshire) are 150 million items, a total which grows by three million every year. Readers, who can gain a free library card on proof of identity, can access volumes of historic archives from the likes of the India Office, drawings, journals, manuscripts, maps, magazines, music scores, patents, prints and, of course, books. This archive sits on 625km of shelving, which extends by 12km every year. The library estimates that if you requested and looked at five items a day it would take you 80,000 years to see its entire collection. It’s a collection that is well used though, as 16,000 people access materials every day and on most days all the 1200 reading room desks are in use. Digitally, the British Library website at services six million catalogue searches a year. Business users can gain access to 49.5 million patents and 260,000 journals on everything from economics to epidemics.

“Most people in IT like to create products for people,” he says. “IT can, and has, become, mundane and boring. It is great when you get an opportunity to understand someone’s needs and create a product for them – that is fantastic.” He says he now asks about product creation and creativity when he is interviewing candidates.

Leading role

The product creation ethic extends to his beliefs in the role of IT being about adding value, and he refuses to be part of a corporate structure that places IT in a reporting line to the finance director. “If I am not adding value I would not be here,” he says, and Boulderstone is clearly used to getting his own way.

The value he adds is part of the move towards being a digital library. “Increasingly, I am looking for a vision for the future and that is about understanding where the technology is going and how the BL can participate in that future.” He describes it as “projecting ourselves into the future”. One of the challenges is institutional: “There are a lot of people here trying to keep the show on the road, but we need to be on a different road,” he says.

Being a public-sector organisation is a strength that provides confines, which Boulderstone is happy to work within, and he recognises that there are also advantages. “It is highly likely that we will be here in 10 or 15 year time, so we can realistically do future planning,” he says.

Boulderstone’s previous experience in the private sector was very different and he finds the public sector enjoyable as he gets feedback, there is less pressure to sell the product, and a great deal of research is, as you would expect, carried out at the British Library itself.

One aspect of creating a digital library is the requirement to digitise large amounts of its holdings. In effect, the BL is scanning the pages of newspapers and 18th-century books and placing them on the internet for users of its website to search. Digitisation has largely been done with funding partners including medical research body the Wellcome Trust, higher-education funding body the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and commercial partners including Microsoft. By digitising its collections, the BL has been able to increase access to the mass of material stored in its vaults, but Boulderstone describes the real crux of the digital library programme as creating an infrastructure that will store, preserve, manage and provide access to digital information. The library sees this as being critical and has embarked on a programme to collect and store digital-only content before it is lost forever.

In the scientific and medical fields there is already a wealth of journals carrying critical research that only ever see the light of day through a PC screen, plus the world today is awash with media formats such as blogs. In the future, some of these could in theory be as important as the diaries of Charles Darwin, but if the technology format dies they could be lost so the BL has taken it upon itself to capture and archive this material.

“We are ensuring the long-term survival of digital content,” Boulderstone says. Sitting back in his office with a shelf of history books on Agincourt and other seismic moments in a nation’s history, Boulderstone identifies the project as -being as important to the organisation as the physical building he sits in.

To create a digital library requires skill changes for the librarians that work at the institute. As a physical entity the BL employs, he estimates, hundreds of security personnel to ensure files from the India Office, or the first editions of Jane Austen, are not lost. But for the entire organisation there is only one IT security person. “It is a very physical organisation and over time it will have to come to terms with digital,” he says.

Collecting the information is just the first shelf in the digital library strategy. The BL must also develop technology that ensures its users, whether physically on site or online, can discover information they find useful.

“Our role is to create seamless access to this content, no matter the type,” he says. “Imagine a search for avian flu. The British Library has newspaper stories, scientific papers and audio clips. Independent of format, people must be able to see everything we have on bird flu. You do not want to have to search different places for different formats, but currently that is what you have to do.”

This repository of information is a great asset to anyone using the internet. So is the BL a giant gift to the world paid for by the UK? “Our remit is to support research in the UK, so we are creating an environment that gives access to content for research purposes. We are making research more thorough and complete,” he says.

From books to bytes

Digitising sheaves of newsprint and 18th-century literature at first sounds like a storage nightmare waiting to happen, but Boulderstone is sanguine.

“It’s less of a worry than you would think,” he says. “We use commodity-price storage and the volumes the digitised works use is modest.” But he does expect the organisation to use a petabyte of storage by 2010. The technical problem for Boulderstone is not the sheer amount of items to be stored, but the variety, “and therein lie the complexities”.

In May, Microsoft announced that it would not be extending a deal it struck with the BL in December 2005 to digitise 25 million pages of out-of-copyright material. In some quarters it was seen as a major blow to the ambitions of the BL, but Boulderstone is happy that Microsoft met its contractual obligations and a series of partnerships with the giant continues to proceed happily. “They had to make a business decision,” he shrugs and smiles.

On joining the British Library in 2002, Boulderstone set about creating a team that could then create the digital library. “We didn’t really have many people who knew about the digital library area,” he recalls, and anyway it was an area in its infancy at the time. A senior team was recruited that had digital experience, with people coming to the BL from Cambridge Consulting, Schlumberger IT services and publishing companies. “There was no core digital library team in the UK,” he says.

Discussing the IT-led information revolution, Boulderstone shows little sign of struggling to keep up with the plot but he is not without complaint. As Britain’s most important library and the pre-eminent such institute in Europe, the BL has been pushing the envelope of technology, which in turns requires partnerships with vendors. Boulderstone says the most time-consuming and neglectful part of his role is dealing with the branch office mentality of global organisations who, when it comes to partner decisions, shuttle a CIO back and forth between their national office and their American headquarters in a desperate bid not to offend or fail to follow protocols.

“The UK operation is only really interested in selling you something, so you have to work with the US, but they refer you back to your national office – it is such a waste of time,” he says.

The close ties the BL has with Microsoft have also created scenarios which Boulderstone finds distasteful, with certain hardware vendors shunning the BL because of its relationships with Microsoft.

In the atrium of the British Library sits a giant brass sculpture of a book with its pages fluttering open to create a seat shape. The sculpture also features a metal ball and chain. Boulderstone looks at it and questions the convict connotations of the sculpture, saying that the role of the organisation is not to lock or imprison books and knowledge, but to set it free. Having questioned the validity of art, he is off with a stride to set more information free – digitally.

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