Music in the British Library: The Present and the Future
Chesser, Richard, Fontes Artis Musicae
The British Library (BL) came into existence in 1973 as a result of the British Library Act of 1972, but its origins go back to 1753 with the foundation by Act of Parliament of the British Museum from the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, the Earls of Oxford, and Sir Robert Cotton. To these collections King George II added the Royal Library in 1757. The collections contained not only printed books and manuscripts but antiquities and natural history specimens too, so that the new institution contained such a miscellany of material that it was in effect both a library and a museum. The paradox was that though the foundations were of aristocratic or even royal provenance, they now belonged to the public, and access to them was free. That principle has survived to the present day, even though financial pressures on the public purse sometimes might challenge whether such munificence can be afforded. Today access to the BL reading rooms is granted to all those who have a need to use our collections, regardless of institutional affiliation, academic qualification, or country of origin. Hence our role is as a 'guarantor of continued public access to both our rich legacy of content and new forms of digital content' even in 'today's climate of significant financial challenge'. (2)
Although the earliest visitors to the institution--including an eight-year-old Mozart--may have experienced the Museum as an exhibition space where its prized manuscripts of Beowulf, Magna Carta, and the Lindisfarne Gospels were displayed alongside the antiquities of ancient Greece and Rome, almost immediately there were signs of change which have come to define the role of the present BL some 250 years later. With the receipt of British publications after registration of copyright at Stationers' Hall, the book departments of the British Museum began to develop a comprehensiveness of collecting in British material that is at the heart of what we do today; and the complementary acquisition of selective foreign and antiquarian material meant that the Museum was acquiring the sources which have ensured that the present Library is at the centre of international research. In the early days of musicology, scholars wanting to pursue lines of enquiry suggested by the histories of music written by Hawkins and Burney would be well served by the music collections of the British Museum, just as those collections had served Hawkins and Burney themselves.
Today the Library's published strategic priorities for 2011 to 2015 are amongst the best indicators of the BL's own perception of its role as a modern national library. The first of these priorities is to guarantee access to our collections, not only our historic and present ones but also those we acquire in the future, which increasingly will be in new formats. Collections of this size and quality have huge value for research purposes, and this requires the Library to work with the appropriate research communities in order to ensure that what we collect and what we do thereafter is relevant to those communities. This, in turn, offers important opportunities to seek collaborative partnerships, the obvious benefits of which include shared development costs and ensuring appropriate contact with our users. In doing all of this, the Library realises that its collections have the potential to enrich the cultural life of the nation by bringing those collections to the attention of the widest possible community--not just through high-profile iconic items, important and engaging though they undoubtedly are, but in the minutiae of what the Library holds, all of which has a significance, meaning and perhaps a future story to tell. This is one of the areas where a library curator can add great value to what the Library has to offer.
So what do these admirable, top-level, sometimes aspirational, goals mean in the context of music? What are the relevant collections to which musicians need access? What music material will we be collecting in the future? How can technology help us navigate and interpret our historical collections in new ways, and at the same time help us build new collections, services and projects, often with partners and collaborators?
The heart of the printed music collection remains those items published in the UK. In the past we have tried to collect this comprehensively and that is still the goal, though ever harder to realise. Legal deposit legislation includes sheet music, and applies to material printed and sold to order, perhaps by a small, desktop publisher, not only that what may be supplied from regular stock. It is important that the national archive acquires music editions produced in this way. They represent a half-way stage towards a fully digital publishing model towards which we are undoubtedly moving. There is already much 'sheet' music published in downloadable format, though usually also in parallel with printed versions. At the moment where both versions are produced we take the printed copy, though we are already receiving material in PDF format and are developing our technical infrastructure and cataloguing processes for when this becomes the norm. British publications are supplemented on a highly selective basis by acquiring all the modern, foreign research-level material that a major research library would be expected to acquire: scholarly modern editions, collected works and series of music from previous centuries, as well as editions of works by major contemporary composers according to their international standing. We also buy very selectively antiquarian printed items, either British or foreign, which fill lacunae in our existing holdings.
As regards unpublished material, the BL's music manuscript collection includes not only sources in music notation (e.g., scores, parts, sketches) but also much documentation about music--including letters, papers, and complete archives. Many of Europe's greatest composers are represented in these collections. One of the finest jewels here is undoubtedly the 97 volumes of Handel manuscripts that form part of the Royal Music Library that was placed on loan at the British Museum in 1911 and donated outright in 1957. There is no comparable archive of such a large proportion of manuscripts of a composer of this stature elsewhere in the world. On the other hand, the collection amassed by the writer Stefan Zweig and donated to us in 1986 is impressive in a quite different way, containing as it does a cross-section of manuscripts of some of the greatest European musical and literary figures. The archive of the Royal Philharmonic Society is different again, containing documentation relating to musical life in England since 1813, including important dealings with Beethoven over the Ninth Symphony, to the present day. Elsewhere in the manuscript collections other great composers are represented, including Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, etc. But since the second half of the twentieth century the focus of collecting has concentrated on the major British figures. Hence today we have extensive collections of manuscripts of works by Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Delius, Seiber, Tippett, Britten, Panufnik, Maxwell Davies, Thea Musgrave, and many more.
If the printed and manuscript collections illustrate our strengths in the so-called western classical tradition, our collections of recorded music are no less impressive. We have around two million music recordings in all formats from wax cylinders dating from the end of the nineteenth century to the digital downloads of the present day. Indeed, the Library's historical recordings have very recently achieved the recognition of being added to UNESCO's 'Memory of the World' register. Needless to say these collections are very important to studies in popular and world and traditional music, and the Library's activities in these areas are thriving and growing apace too.
In general, the Library's extensive literature collections are not physically arranged by subject, and hence no discrete collection of music literature exists, though of course scholarly musicological literature in all languages is bought extensively. Here perhaps the challenge for institutions such as the BL is to discover what material it has which is not fully charted and researched yet: projects such as the Concert Programme Project3 (CPP) have begun to make important inroads with material the significance of which is only now being appreciated.
CPP is an excellent illustration of the benefits of collaboration, and one of a number of projects which illustrate how the BL is fulfilling its responsibility to develop new ways of raising awareness of material, wherever it is located, and to facilitate access. CPP was a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council from within the higher education funding stream, hosted by the Royal College of Music and Cardiff University, and managed over three years on secondment by Dr Rupert Ridgewell from the BL. By the conclusion of the project in 2007, it had covered the holdings of 53 UK institutions and provided collection-level descriptions encompassing hundreds of thousands of programmes that otherwise would have been difficult to discover and locate. It is currently being updated on a voluntary basis with details of holdings from Cambridge University.
If CPP is in effect a catalogue portal, then the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music4 (DIAMM), of which the BL is a partner, provides access to the images of the sources themselves. The images are submitted to a central database by the various holding libraries and viewing is free, subject to agreeing to the terms of the licence which limits use to non-commercial purposes. Once again, funding comes from a number of sources.
The BL is also part of the Music Treasures Consortium, (5) hosted by the Library of Congress. This uses technology in a different way from DIAMM to provide access to distributed content, and of a much wider range. Unlike DIAMM, there is no central repository of digital images. Instead, data in MARC format is harvested that contain links to images of music manuscripts held by the various host libraries. With partner libraries in Boston (Harvard University) and New York (Juilliard School of Music, New York Public Library, and the Morgan Library and Museum), this international consortium's website provides access to a wonderful selection of important musical sources. Inevitably this selection may have reflected principally which images were already available, but it has the potential to grow as each institution produces digital images of more and more of its music collections. Indeed, the BL will make available images made for other purposes (e.g., publishing facsimiles, preservation) as part of our normal workflow via our Digital Item Presentation System (DIPS), where the autograph manuscript of the second book of Bach's '48' may now be found. (6) Plans are also in hand to digitise our manuscripts of Purcell and Mozart.
Three of the BL treasures from this Consortium have been singled out for especial treatment via our own website, on account of their iconic status, importance, and opportunities for multi-media presentation. The manuscript of My Ladye Nevells Booke and the autograph manuscripts of Handel's Messiah and Mozart's Verzeichnuss have all been digitised using the award-winning Turning the Pages software7 (TTP), which also provides spoken and written commentary, sound files, and user-generated content. These are excellent examples of ways in which the Library shows how its most important research sources, which formerly were only accessible to the few, can now have relevance and interest to the widest possible audience, and thereby, in the words of one of our strategic goals, 'enrich the cultural life of the nation'.
It would not be possible, however, to lavish TTP treatment on all of the BL's manuscript holdings. For much of this material, acquired 100 years ago and more, it is sufficient merely to upgrade the catalogue entries, many of which have not been revisited since the material was first acquired. Much of this revision has been possible through two externally funded RISM(UK) (8) projects dealing with manuscripts from 1600 to 1800, many of which form part of the BL collections. Earlier this year, the BL, in partnership with Royal Holloway, University of London, succeeded in obtaining a third grant, from the Joint Information Steering Committee (JISC), which will allow the existing BL / RISM(UK) project to extend into the area of printed sources, and also to develop new functionality which will be of great benefit to researchers. This new project, Early Music Online (9) (EMO), is preparing digital images from existing microfilms of more than 300 important sixteenth-century anthology volumes from the BL cited in RISM series B/1. Links from both the BL and RISM catalogues will be provided to the images, which will then be freely available for possible further manipulation in digital format by technology such as Aruspix, (10) or repurposing in such projects as the Electronic Corpus of Lute Music. (11) The rich metadata, with full lists of contents for all publications, will also be available for export to the international RISM database in the normal way. All of these consequential activities fulfil the strategic goal that the Library should 'encourage others to integrate our metadata and out-of-copyright digital content into their services'. (12)
Indeed, the value of the BL's music collections, particularly audio, to form the basis of projects which can develop new tools to analyse and help us understand the material in new and different ways, is one of the major areas of innovation in the realm of digital musicology. Music informatics, music semantics, and linked data and sonic visualisation are some of the new techniques being developed which can radically transform the way we search and analyse music data. The Musicology for the Masses project at Queen Mary, University of London, explores these issues. As more and more music material is born or converted into digital format, the Library's collections cannot fail to be at the heart of such research and development.
Another JISC project very important to the Library's music collections was the highly successful Archival Sound Recordings project13 (ASR), which over five years has made tens of thousands of hours of important recordings available via the Library website. This material covers the widest possible range: classical, pop, jazz, and world and traditional music, together with spoken accents and dialects and oral-history interviews, all of which had previously been accessible only onsite in the Library's reading rooms. User-generated content is invited by adding tags and notes, allowing the Library to engage with its users in a very constructive way. Rights clearance was a major part of the project because of the complexity of intellectual property issues relating to music, and the lack of any adequate, simple, procedure for dealing with 'orphans' (i.e., works where rights-holders cannot be identified or traced). In all of these dealings it is important that the BL should be seen to observe absolute propriety in respecting rights and securing necessary permissions, and access is currently restricted to the EU because of this.
The final project to cite here which illustrates the BL's own perception of the modern role appropriate for a national library in the field of music is the West Midlands Pilot Project. (14) Here the BL, once again with external funding partnerships, is attempting to acquire, store, and make accessible important music of all types in audio format which is being created online in a specific region of the UK and not otherwise archived. As its name suggests, this is very much an experiment, and one which illustrates that today music is being created and disseminated in ways that risk evading capture, storage and appreciation unless we find new ways of collecting.
Material published solely on the web presents archival challenges which do not exist with publications in traditional formats. Nearly ten years ago, the BL addressed this particular issue by taking the initiative, which strictly fell outside any existing statutory remit, to initiate a project to archive, with due permission, a small selection of websites that were considered to have lasting research value. It was noticed, for example, that much material relating to the 2005 UK general election was published only on the web.
This initiative has been superseded by--or developed into--draft statutory Regulations (15) which would put the archiving of web-based and other digital content on a firmer footing. Unfortunately, the Regulations are only secondary legislation: they cannot significantly amend the primary legislation (16) to which they relate and which specifically excludes sound recordings and films from legal deposit. So the present voluntary schemes for acquisition of music CDs, DVDs, etc., must continue for the foreseeable future.
After the draft legislation was published, there was a period of consultation during which concerns were expressed by libraries and publishers alike. The publication of a revision of the draft legislation incorporating views submitted through this process is eagerly awaited. At the time of writing it is therefore not possible to know what form the final statutory provisions will take, but it is anticipated that for digital media published on a physical carrier (i.e., CD, DVD, etc.) the provisions will be similar to those that exist at present in the UK for printed books: that there will be an obligation to deposit a copy at the BL, and to make available copies for the other legal deposit libraries (17) to claim (though subject to the overriding exclusion of sound and films mentioned above).
For online content (e.g., websites or any other web-based digital material), whether free, charged, or subject to other access restrictions, it is expected that a claim to acquire may be made by one of the libraries on behalf of all of them, either in writing or by automated means (i.e., harvesting). Access to this material will be possible--only one user at a time at each of the libraries--through a shared technical infrastructure which the legal deposit libraries have been planning since the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003. A publisher may place an embargo on deposit material for a period of three years, which is renewable, if it thinks that its business interests will be compromised. Copies of a reasonable part of the digital material will be permitted for non-commercial purposes of research and private study, but these copies must not be digital. However, deposit of any electronic publication, whether offline or online, is not obligatory if the cost to the publisher would be disproportionate to the public benefit.
It is clear that these latter restrictions reflect the concerns of the publishing industry about the security, costs, and governance of whatever electronic deposit scheme is introduced. Equally, though putting the acquisition of digital material on a statutory basis is very welcome, the library community is disappointed that the exceptions to copyright for this material are much more restrictive than for existing, non-digital material. Moreover, even these exceptions would be rescinded if the 'sunset clause' of the legislation caused the new arrangements to terminate, with the effect that no more digital material would be deposited, and existing exceptions to copyright for legitimate use of material already acquired would no longer apply. For this material copyright would in effect become perpetual and absolute. A specifically musical concern, of course, is the exclusion of digital sound and film from legal deposit, and we would urge for review of this point at the earliest opportunity. Sound recordings and films may be unique works just as important as printed or electronic matter which deserve the same degree and quality of statutory protection and regulation as other formats for archival and other purposes. In all these matters, though, the library community looks forward to collaborating closely with publishers to devise whatever pragmatic solutions are necessary to complement the statutory provisions. The law can never legislate for all circumstances.
In the field of music publishing these changes offer many potential benefits to libraries, publishers and users, and the good relations and close working relationships that exist between these groups augur well for devising effective new mechanisms for acquisition, archiving and simply providing access to music in all formats in the future. For example, if the West Midlands Pilot Project were extended to other regions, perhaps in collaboration with the broadcasting industry, a national network would build up that would capture the best music being created in audio format by enterprising individuals and groups independent of mainstream publishers. Equally, the harvested acquisition of 'sheet music' in electronic format could be a particularly cost-effective way of managing legal deposit for both libraries and publishers. And once archived, retrieval and access services could be developed in imaginative ways too, but all within the framework of the statutory protection required by the law.
The last area to mention where the BL is taking a lead role in the provision of national music library services is in the realm of catalogues and portals. Though the BL no longer produces a national bibliography for sheet music, since the British Catalogue of Music is no longer published in printed form, nonetheless this data is effectively contained and retrievable from the Library's main catalogue, which includes printed music. In addition, of great importance to the loan of music materials nationwide, the card catalogue of the interlibrary loan music collection held at Boston Spa, some 140,000 items, was automated and integrated into the main BL catalogue in 2009. In recognition of the great value of this innovation as regards resource discovery and potential for access the BL received IAML(UK & Irl)'s Excellence Award the following year. A further development in this line followed in 2010 when the BL made its bibliographic data of some 14 million catalogue records freely available for non-commercial use by external researchers and libraries, in order to support and stimulate exploration of this huge dataset and the material to which it relates.
The idea of a national music catalogue for music materials is not new, and one hopes that these developments will give speed to its realisation. There are lots of existing catalogues and portals covering music in the UK already, of course, in addition to those that have been mentioned here. The Copac National, Academic, and Specialist Library Catalogue (COPAC)18 merges many library catalogues from the higher education sector, including the BL. Cecilia (19) and Encore!20 are portals to collection-level entries for music material and performance sets, both invaluable finding aids initiated by IAML with BL support. Music is performed, studied, or simply enjoyed all over the country. But the materials to support this interest may not be available locally. In these austere times, when financial pressures require us to do more with less, the need has never been so great to develop the most cost-effective means of providing access to music from lending collections on a national basis, wherever it is held. The first step towards this aspiration would be a national music catalogue, joining up those that already exist. Later steps would involve developing an effective national infrastructure for sending material out and its return, and sharing costs. Schemes already exist on a regional basis, and these are ripe for developing nationwide. The BL could play a very significant role in such developments, but full collaboration and support from libraries in all sectors would be required.
The preceding pages have dwelt not on the BL's long and distinguished past, because that is well known and documented elsewhere. Rather, projects and activities have been chosen which speak for themselves to illustrate what the BL perceives its role to be. Needless to say, there are many activities that there has been no room to report. While we are still collecting materials in the same way that we have for centuries, and indeed it is important to do so for as long as those materials are there to collect, we are also developing new ways of connecting. Access today has been transformed by technology which in turn spawns new methods of information retrieval and computational analysis of music, whether on the page or in a sound file. Engaging with all of the sectors that the BL serves so that our music collections, activities and services are relevant to those communities will ensure that we remain at the heart of modern musicology and the musical life of the nation for as long as we have been in the past.
Richard Chesser (1)
(1.) Richard Chesser is Head of Music at the BL, London, England.
(2.) BL's 2020 Vision, p1, at
(12.) BL's 2020 Vision, p7 at
(15.) The Legal Deposit Libraries (non-print publications) Regulations 2011.
(16.) The Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988.
(17.) The Bodleian Library, Oxford; Cambridge University Library; the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth; the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh; Trinity College, Dublin.
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Music in the British Library: The Present and the Future. Contributors: Chesser, Richard - Author. Journal title: Fontes Artis Musicae. Volume: 58. Issue: 3 Publication date: July-September 2011. Page number: 325+. © 2008 International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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