The Digital Revolution Has Had a Profound Impact on the Publishing Industry, Blowing Apart Traditional Notions of Commercial Value. When Something Is Available Online, There Is an Automatic Assumption That It Will Be Free

By Brindley, Lynne | European Business Forum, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Digital Revolution Has Had a Profound Impact on the Publishing Industry, Blowing Apart Traditional Notions of Commercial Value. When Something Is Available Online, There Is an Automatic Assumption That It Will Be Free


Brindley, Lynne, European Business Forum


The British Library has a 250-year history of gathering, organising and providing access to the world's knowledge. Our collection includes 150 million items, occupying 625km of shelves. The material we hold dates back to 1100BC, covers most known languages, and includes treasures such as the Magna Carta, one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks,Beatles manuscripts and the recording of Nelson Mandela's trial speech.

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We are a publicly funded organisation and our primary focus is on enabling everyone to access the knowledge we hold: writers and researchers; further and higher education; business and SMEs; the private individual and the general public. Our research shows that the British Library generates an estimated [pounds sterling]363m in value for the UK economy each year - that's equivalent to [pounds sterling]4.40 for every [pounds sterling]1 of public money invested. But we have to continually negotiate a fine balance between giving away information for free, delivering sustainable services through charging, and supporting the copyright and income streams of the authors, scientists and researchers who generate the knowledge we hold.

The ongoing digital revolution has profoundly affected the manner in which information is created, disseminated and shared. The internet has given rise to the "instant-access generation", radically altering our expectations of how, when and where we access knowledge. The publishing world is working to adapt to the new environment. By the year 2020, we predict that 40 per cent of UK research monographs will be available in electronic form only, while a further 50 per cent will be produced in both print and digital. A mere ten per cent of new titles will be available in print alone by 2020.

It is our role to develop the infrastructure to store, manage, preserve and provide access to digital material in the same way as we do for the "physical" national collection, gradually taking on responsibility for long-term preservation and access to a much wider range of "digitally born" electronic material. We are also exploring how we can increase access to that knowledge. This year, for example, we have been working with Microsoft to digitise 100,000 books, representing 25 million pages of out-of-copyright material. We have opened up to search engines a significant proportion of our catalogue data and the content information of our 20,000 most heavily used journals. This means that our collection is more easily discoverable via web searches.

The move towards digital publishing brings with it wonderful opportunities. Publishers can create much richer experiences for their readers online and craft more flexible products; they are no onger constrained or restricted by the physical space on a page. But digital publishing also creates certain challenges because it blows apart traditional notions of commercial value.

When something is available online, there is an instant assumption that it will be free. Of course, no commercial publisher of information can sustain a long-term business model if it gives away all its content; so the challenge for publishers is often to rethink their business models and search for other ways of supporting and sustaining the flow of new ideas. The advertising structure of Google is one very successful commercial model, but we are also seeing the emergence of micro-payment models in the publishing industry, as with the music industry - with Amazon and others offering a selection of books for sale by the chapter and even by the page.

We, too, have been investigating how we can reshape our services, collections and skills in order to remain relevant.

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The Digital Revolution Has Had a Profound Impact on the Publishing Industry, Blowing Apart Traditional Notions of Commercial Value. When Something Is Available Online, There Is an Automatic Assumption That It Will Be Free
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