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Locked out of the Library

By Catriona Miller

For months the British Library has been out of action, following a cyberattack. With no end in sight, we look at the problems it's causing and the wider implications.

British Library, London, (Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of October 2023 - Halloween appropriately enough - the British Library found itself in a nightmare. A ransomware cyber-attack crashed their systems, disabling their website and digital cataloguing system, and effectively crippling their entire operation. A demand for nearly £600,000 was made, and rejected. Personal data of staff and readers was dumped on the dark web. Users were advised to change passwords. Yet, that was only the start of the problem. Four months on, although a basic search catalogue has been restored, the library remains only semi-functional.

The scale of the British Library is almost beyond imagining. Its collections contain over 170 million items ranging from postage stamps to recordings of the Beatles, from papyrus scrolls that survived the eruption of Vesuvius to contemporary newspapers. As a legal deposit library, it receives a copy of every book published in the UK and Ireland. Despite moving into huge new, purpose-built - and at the time architecturally controversial - premises in 1997, much of its collection is now stored 200 miles away in West Yorkshire. The Library also hosts exhibitions and events: most recently Fantasy: Realms of Imagination.

The most important, and impressive, aspect of the British Library, however, is its democracy. Anyone can search its catalogue, anyone can go and work in the Reading Rooms, anyone can get a Reader's Pass which allows them to call up any items they want to see. Famous novelists and life-long academics rub shoulders with first year students and people just looking for a quiet space to read. Or rather they did. At the moment, you can only get a temporary pass which does not allow you to request items from the collection, you cannot order items online, you cannot access the full catalogue and you have to call up items manually by filling out paper forms.

The problems in St Pancras are only the tip of the iceberg. All over the country, students and researchers make use of the electronic legal deposit system to read recently published works online. This too is still out of action. There is anecdotal evidence of PhD's on hold, of university courses changed at the last minute, of authors not able to meet deadlines. And this does not include the thousands of people who accessed the British Library's website and catalogue everyday for personal interest and research.

There are other, less obvious, issues. The British Library supervises Public Lending Rights payments, which are the royalties paid to authors every time their books are borrowed from UK libraries. These sums, calculated and paid annually, represent an important income stream for writers: although 13p per 'borrow' might seem meagre, and fees are capped at £6,600, for many struggling authors the annual payment is vital. The Library recently committed to getting all payments out by the end of the financial year but there has been weeks of uncertainty and delay. The Library also funds Visiting Fellowships and these have been suspended.

It is going to take time and money to put all this right. The British Library has given no indication of when things will be functioning normally, and estimates for repairing the damage are around £6 million. It received criticism, especially in the initial stage of the attack, for poor communication, and the London Evening Standard last month reported on low morale amongst staff. In fact, the cyber-attack received relatively little coverage, suggesting perhaps that it has been viewed as niche issue affecting London literati and academics. The reality is that it should be a wake-up call about the seriousness of cybercrime which can impact anyone.

The British Library attack is not an isolated incident. Over the Christmas period there was a significant hack of museums systems in the US. Whilst members of the public only noticed a suspension of online search facilities, behind the scenes much more sensitive data was potentially compromised. This is the dilemma which museums, libraries and culture providers of all kinds now face. The public expects online access and readily available information. Digital records are considered 'better': the British Museum's thefts last year have, for instance, been blamed on the institution's failure to digitise its catalogue. Yet digital records can be falsified, hacked, stolen and destroyed just as easily as paper copies.

The British Government is at the moment consulting on plans to destroy paper copies of historical wills and retain the information only in digital form, saving £4.5 million a year. The plan is being sold as a means of widening access, as well as saving money and space, but it has been criticised by many historians, who argue that not only can digitisation be flawed, incomplete or misleading, but that it is in itself vulnerable. Ongoing public inquiries in the UK have highlighted missing government WhatsApp messages and flawed computer accounting systems. In an increasingly online world, we need to be aware that instant convenience needs to be balanced by potential problems and dangers at every level. Events at the British Library show this only too well.


About the Writer:

Catriona Miller is an independent art historian and writer on art based in the UK. She has taught and lectured on all aspects of art history and is currently researching women artists in British collections and issues of nationalism and identity in nineteenth-century landscape painting.

Twitter: @cmillerartlife 


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