British Library's Richard Boulderstone sets out digital agenda for national libraries

Bankers, retailers and travel operators have seen their worlds turned upside down in the last 15 years and, as every CIO knows, the maelstrom was instigated by the internet. An oft-overlooked sector that has been riding this storm is the humble library. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our national institute, the British Library.

From its two hubs in Boston Spa, Yorkshire and Euston Road in central London, the 35-year old organisation has been madly flicking through its pages seeking the plot for a digital future. The author of this change since 2002 has been Richard Boulderstone, British Library director of e-strategy and programmes.

Like the English dictionary, you’d expect the British Library (BL) to be an ancient monument of learning and information, and will be surprised to learn that is in fact very young, with its current London headquarters opening in 1998, following nearly two decades of political debate and construction. Prior to the opening of the BL, the UK had a series of specialist national libraries, the most famous being the British Museum Reading Room in Bloomsbury, London, which is, to this day, one of the most inspiring rooms in which to consume our rich national heritage and culture.

By the law of legal deposit, the BL receives a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland, whether it’s a book, magazine, newspaper or journal. It houses 150 million items in every language imaginable and is used by 16,000 people every day. Among the treasures in its archives is the Magna Carta agreement, the first published edition of The Times newspaper and manuscripts from the Beatles.

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However, the world around the British Library today is a digital world, and the institute has to retain its archivist role, while simultaneously re-inventing itself as a digital node in an online nation.

“Of our total collections, the amount that is digital is very small, compared to the physical collections,” explains Boulderstone. “To change the organisation – and to meet the needs of users – is the exciting challenge.”

This is Boulderstone’s first role within the library world, but not in the information sector, which defines his career. From the 1980s to today, Boulderstone’s career has seen him busily working his way up from programmer to technology vice president and on to his current role via financial information providers Knight Ridder and Thomson Financial, and web search engine LookSmart. “I have been trying to understand the information needs and blending that with the technology you have,” he says of his career.