British Library readers have been asked to fill out a short questionnaire this week. Well, 30 questions. The important questions are 13, 14 and 15.
The British Library's slogan is The World's Knowledge. That is a big claim to live up to, and it does. At one time it was based at Bloomsbury, including the world famous and quite magnificent Round Reading Room. With the move to St Pancras, the Holborn Science Reference & Information Service and Aldwych Life Sciences were closed, and a number of other changes were made bringing it all under one roof. Now, apart from St Pancras there is only the Newspaper Library at Colindale, and another reading room at Boston Spa along with the off-site repository.
Like everything else in our lives, computers have radically altered all library services, including those of the BL. To see how radical have been the changes, check out this. As consultant Dr Robin Alston made clear at the time: “The government has been trying to pressurise the British Library into charging for on-line services, but the staff have so far resisted this...We are opposed to anything which frustrates knowledge. You can walk into any public library and consult reference books for free, so why should the new technology be different?”
If the Library's current questionnaire is any sort of indication, the Coalition Government intends to change all that and more. Question 13 includes “...would you be willing to pay an amount, for example through donation or subscription, to help support the continuation of the British Library Reading Rooms and their services?”
While Question 15 contains a bizarre proposition indeed: “Imagine that the British Library ceased issuing Reader Passes but allowed existing Readers to sell their Pass. What is the minimum amount you would be willing to accept as a monthly payment... ”
Perhaps even more worrying than the content of this document is the fact that it is signed by the Library's Chief Executive.
At present, public libraries the length and breadth of the country are under threat of closure or at least some form of rationalisation. The British Library is not a public library; it is far more important than that. It is important that any cuts or reductions to its services, including redundancies should be opposed not simply by library staff and the trade unions but by everyone. While some readers would be willing to or even relish the prospect of selling their passes, the overwhelming majority are wise enough to realise that as Dr Alston said, you can't put a price on knowledge, nor should you even try. And that applies not just to scholars and career academics, but to everyone, especially the young.
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