The Ultimate Library

A copy of computing ( 31sth July 2008 ) has just landed on my desk. It carries an article about the British Library‘s need to digitise information. I was reminded of an idea that I had some time ago…

Apparently, the British Library already holds “a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland”. I believe that the availability of digital versions of these publications is at the voluntary discretion of publishers.

My proposal is that:

  1. Any new edition of a book should be obliged to provide an electronic copy of that book to the library.
  2. Once copyright on that book expires, all those books should the be made available on the Internet for anyone to read.

This would:

  • Ensure the digital preservation and availability of those publications for future generations.
  • Enable the library to reduce the shelf space allocated to books by maintaining books in digital form rather than in print (currently, library increases shelf space by some 12km a year).
  • It would encourage (but not necessitate) publishers to provide e-versions of more of their books. There is a growing number of readers who already prefer non-paper versions of books.
  • Books could easily be copied to multiple physical locations, so the loss of one location would not result in the loss of the books.

Of course, there would be costs:

There would be a burden on publishers to provide the electronic documents. However

  • The majority of books already exist in digital form at the point of publication.

The remainder would need to be digitised by the publisher, but the cost of digitisation could be spread amongst the beneficiaries of publications:

  • Publications that are not made commercially available could be given an exemption.
  • Books with small print runs (say, less than 500 copies) could be given an exemption.

The other cost is the maintenance of equipment and knowledge needed to actually read all these publications. However:

  • The British Library already holds a vast collection of digital material, so future readability is already a concern.

In my view, these measures would leave future generations with access to the Ultimate Library.


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