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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 116-180(WS)-E
Division Number: V
Professional Group: Acquisition and Collection Development: Workshop
Joint Meeting with:
Meeting Number: 180
Simultaneous Interpretation: No

Reorganisation in the British Library to acquire electronic resources

Jim Vickery
Department of English Language Selection and Serials, the British Library
London, UK



This is a practical, descriptive account of acquiring electronic material at the British Library, focusing on selection but also referring to other such as access and archiving. The main topic is acquisition of electronic publications, not the digitisation of existing works.



The British Library is the national library if the United Kingdom, and is housed in two main sites in London and Boston Spa. It is a major research library, supporting both reference and document supply.

The BL holds around 80 million items, including 15 million books. Around 50,000 books are purchased and 80,000 deposited each year; there are 60,000 current serial subscriptions, and 30,000 British serials deposited. The acquisitions budget was £13 million last year.

The British Library Board approved an additional budget of £0.5m for the acquisition of new electronic material in the financial year 1999/2000, and a similar budget for the following two years.

Although the British Library was spending £350,000 annually on electronic publications, mostly CD-ROMs, it recognised in 1998/99 the danger of its falling behind other academic and research libraries in the provision of electronic material to readers and customers. Reader expectations were growing fast, and action was urgently needed.

The position on acquiring electronic resources in 1999 was ad hoc, with localised arrangements; unstructured budgeting; no automatic liaison or central control The Digital Library Project concentrated on document supply, digitisation and storage. The priority was to acquire electronic material through purchase. Legislation for the legal deposit of British electronic publications is currently with UK Government.



The scale of the task made it obvious that creating a single Electronic Libvrarian post would not be the answer.

In May 1999 an Electronic Working Group of five key collection development staff was set up to identify issues and establish procedures. The group met monthly. Each member of the group took on new responsibilities: reader access, selection and general developments, an Electronic Selection Co-ordinator, developing was database, was nominated, and a Licence Representative was appointed. These duties were in addition to existing responsibilities..

In September 1999 a Core Electronic Selectors Forum was set up; the role of Core Selectors was to advise and oversee selectors in their areas. This wide-ranging group involved staff from all parts of the Library, and focused selection activity through nominated Core Selectors for each collection area. Other members covered collection management, IT, Digital Library, and preservation. The Forum has met every two months since its inception. Liaison with other groups, committees and individuals has been continuous.



The Library created the corporate £0.5m fund for the new electronic material under a single Responsibility Centre with central control.

Procedures were established based on a multi-part form which was developed during the autumn of 1999. Guidelines were written to accompany the form, and a database was set up in Microsoft Access to record all relevant data, to make it available as necessary during the life cycle of the items, and to provide management information.

In order to avoid the Selectors Forum having to review every title, the database records were circulated to Core Selectors so that everyone could express an interest in a product. Nevertheless, it took on average nearly two months for the forms to complete all stages of their journey from origination to approval. This reflected both the inherent complexity of the process and the fact that everyone was learning and improvising.



The key elements involved in the project were:


No formal selection policy was issued, but selectors used their existing curatorial expertise to propose suitable items, following traditional policies as to scope, content and level. During this period identifying new electronic resources became an integral part of the selectors' job. The change in emphasis away from acquiring physical material for the collection, to licensing access to information, was acknowledged as part of the process.

In the event, there was a reasonable balance between CD-ROMs and Internet publications, and between bibliographic and research material. No e-books were acquired. For the more expensive items, trials or demonstrations were arranged in order to evaluate the products more closely. The special problems posed by individual titles selected for document supply purposes are still under discussion.

Budget control

In this first year it did not prove possible to spread the electronic expenditure equitably across the Library. Selectors were encouraged to identify useful material, and the most assiduous benefited, as long as their selections were immediately usable and represented good value for money.

Finance System codes for literature and staff time were rationalised. Information on expenditure was derived from the Access database and from Oracle, not from the ordering systems. Savings from print and CD-ROM cancellations will be taken into account when assessing the total spend.

Access strategy

The Working Group liaised closely with Reading Room managers to integrate electronic with traditional reference services. Electronic access has now been made the remit of two new posts within the Reader Services area. The preferred mode of accessing licensed online material is through designated IP addresses rather than passwords.


It became necessary to appoint a Licensing Representative to gain knowledge and experience of all aspects of licensing, and to act as advisor to other staff. This proved time-consuming, since each licence required individual scrutiny. The conditions attached to licences covered such matters as number of simultaneous users, location of users, networking, document supply, commercial use, downloading, printing, perpetual access and archiving. Negotiation for commercial document supply purposes was led by the Publisher Liaison Officer.

Responsibility for choosing, contacting and negotiating with publishers and suppliers rested primarily with the selectors, although the Licensing Representative and Acquisitions were also involved.

Information technology

The front-line IT representative was a key member of the team, advising on technical issues. A key issue remains the commitment of IT staff resources, particularly for the installation and support of CD-ROMs in Reading Rooms and stacks.

Management information

Performance measures/targets are being established for both internal management purposes and to demonstrate to UK Government that the money is being spent wisely. Management information concerning titles selected and ordered began to be provided from the MSAccess database towards the end of the year. The Library also needs data on usage of its electronic material, particularly serials, so that it can make sound decisions on whether to continue subscriptions and licences.

Acquisition and cataloguing

All titles were ordered individually by the Library, since the BL does not belong to electronic purchasing consortia. It was decided to use the existing monograph and serial systems to order electronic material, rather than set up a new system. The physical processes, including shelfmarking and labelling, are still under review. Cataloguing standards are in place. Records will be used for the OPAC, including OPAC97 on the BL website, and separate specialist listings.

Preservation and archiving

Storage of electronic data is dependent in the longer term on the Digital Store, part of the Digital Library project, for which the Library has tendered. In the meantime, we sought to ensure that items acquired were properly preserved for use and archiving. A preservation checklist for consideration by selectors at the time of ordering was drafted.



  1. The organisational model based upon the concept of Core Selectors and a cross-departmental team approach with central control, will be continued

  2. The form and guidelines will be revised, and the database refined, to provide the required tracking and management information.

  3. Staffing needs will be reviewed. Although individual selectors will be expected to absorb the extra duties, it is likely that a permanent Licensing post and Electronic Selection Coordinator post will be recommended. Additional posts have already been introduced in Reader Services.

  4. Service level agreements will be agreed between BL departments to ensure that the necessary infrastructure, resources and staff are provided.

  5. The centralised budget will be extended to include most electronic selections from April 2001.

  6. A flexible generic licence, reflecting BL requirements, will be established if practicable ; existing licences will be reviewed to ensure that they are in line with current requirements. Document supply agreements will be integrated with the general BL policy.

  7. Training workshops for selectors will be organised.

  8. Collection development policy, including a policy for the cancellation or retention of existing licences and subscriptions, will be formalised.

  9. Awareness of other libraries' experience will be raised, and visits made where necessary.



In conclusion: considerable effort was expended by many members of staff to acquire worthwhile electronic material: selectors were expected to become familiar with electronic sources, IT-related matters and licensing issues within a short time-frame. These responsibilities were in addition to their traditional work. Much work needs to be done to improve the competencies across the library.

The aim of incorporating electronic acquisitions into the British Library's remit was largely achieved in this initial year. There are many unresolved questions, which are shared by other libraries undergoing a similar transformation, but a national library has special additional responsibilities to consider.

The BL is now moving towards being a true 'hybrid' library. So far the effort has been largely in-house, but co-operation with other libraries will be a key factor in the future.


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