Priorities and Perils

In this series celebrating and promoting digital resources that support book history, perhaps we should pause, take a minute’s silence, to reflect on the recent calamitous events at the British Library? I’m sure all readers will know that the BL’s website, services and e-resources went offline following a cyber-attack in October 2023, and that many of them remain unavailable while the long struggle to return to something like normality continues. It has reminded us just how central the BL’s catalogues and databases are to our field – ESTC and the Database of Bookbindings are the things I most immediately miss, others will have different go-tos. The ripples have been felt in other copyright libraries who could suddenly no longer provide access to electronic legal deposit material.

Some will see here a dire warning to our e-world, see what can happen, we need to go back to ink on paper as the way of doing things. But doors falling off planes don’t make us return to ships, any more than car accidents make us saddle up horses. Technological advances that become integral to society are not readily given up. Myself, I was struck by how little coverage the whole incident seemed to get – how can something like this happen to the national library, and go on for so long, without more public alarm? Why was there nothing on the DCMS website? Does the BL’s place in our cultural and intellectual infrastructure not deserve more fuss? Colon, discuss.

The BL has now published a detailed account of the incident, how it happened, what the future path is, the lessons for us all: There will be much blame-gaming, particularly from those who can’t imagine how complex organisations with competing priorities and financial pressures aren’t spinning every plate that they should, perfectly, all the time. Which is not to say that the partly outsourced IT infrastructure and aging systems described in the review paper don’t paint an alarming picture – how many public institutions are in a place to cast the first stone? It’s a sad story, for the BL, and for everyone who cares about everything it stands for. Let’s hope that those bedrock e-resources become available once more.

David Pearson, Hon. Editor of Monographs