The digital library futures project

The interior of Duke Humphrey's Library in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford.

Paul Gooding describes a joint project looking at the impact of the expansion of legal deposit to include digital material and the challenges that these e-legal deposits pose for the academic sector and its interactions with institutional and regulatory systems.

Legal deposit was introduced into English law in 1662 to ensure the systematic preservation of the nation’s published output for future generations. The responsibility for caring for these collections was given to the libraries at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, until the establishment of the British Museum and its library in 1753. Today, legal deposit is the responsibility of six trusted libraries in the UK and Ireland, which retain the right to receive copies of print publications including books, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, sheet music and maps. We are pleased to be launching Digital Library Futures: the impact of e-legal deposit in the academic sector, returning to the ancient libraries of Cambridge and Oxford to explore the uniquely contemporary issue of how legal deposit collections are created and used in the digital age.

Non-print materials

In 2013, the regulations were expanded to include non-print materials, a vital addition that allows the legal deposit libraries to develop a national archive of resources such as websites, e-journals, e-books and CD-ROMs. We aim to provide case studies for the impact of this expansion upon preserving and making accessible the UK’s so-called ‘digital universe’. Our project partners, the Cambridge University Library and the Bodleian Libraries, provide a unique perspective. Both are incorporating e-legal deposit materials in their collections in a way that balances their moral and regulatory responsibilities with the needs of their scholarly audience. We will report on how the provision of e-legal deposit materials in academic libraries interacts with and challenges institutional and regulatory systems, and how this intersects with critical notions of how library collections serve the public good in the digital age. There are several key areas which we hope to address through our research.

Contemporary users

Our project has the user perspective at its core. We observed that existing writing focuses primarily on technical and regulatory perspectives: users were considered in the drafting of the legislation, but there has been little subsequent work to understand how resultant practices have impacted upon them. We are particularly interested in how the widespread view of the World Wide Web as a positive democratising force is reflected through e-legal deposit.

Both project partners have core strategic commitments to support wider participation and maintain their collections for the benefit of both scholars and the wider community.

There has been criticism of this aspect of e-legal deposit, for instance Andrew Green, former Librarian of the National Library of Wales, commented in 2013 that regulatory limitations place some elements of e-legal deposit in direct opposition with libraries’ desire to support innovation and widen participation. Some of these limitations include an inability for libraries to provide networked access to non-commercial materials, geographical limitations on accessing electronic texts, and what Green calls the imposition of an ‘effective perpetual copyright’ that extends protections for e-legal deposit materials beyond the term defined by copyright law.1 We are interested in foregrounding the behaviour and needs of users in future discussions, to provide a balance to the institutional, technical and regulatory perspectives surrounding e-legal deposit.

Changing research methods

One area where this change is evident is in the ever-increasing prominence of digital research methods, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, which are enabled by access to library and archival digital resources. Analysis of large-scale textual corpora, for instance, has been supported by the mass digitisation of the books, newspapers and periodicals that provide valuable historical datasets. This emergence has been matched by regulatory shifts, for instance copyright exemptions were introduced into UK law in 2014 to allow for non-commercial text and data mining of copyrighted materials. Libraries have responded by creating digital research support teams such as the British Library Digital Scholarship team, and by exploring new forms of licensing, managing, and providing access to digital content. The potential for similar work through e-legal deposit is rich, if researchers can access datasets from social media and the web. Yet the wider innovations in academic research challenge the conceptual framework of legal deposit: as an activity designed to support future generations, and to protect the interests of contemporary rights-holders, the opportunity for today’s users to harness e-legal deposit materials is limited. Digital research methods fundamentally challenge the nature of copyright, as they often shift the focus from reading to computational analysis.

Balancing stakeholder interests

While we have chosen to take a user-centric approach to the challenges posed by e-legal deposit, it is essential to ensure that the voice of content creators such as publishers is represented. We will therefore be approaching publishing industry figures to explore e-legal deposit as it relates to them. For instance, the importance of advertising revenue to commercial websites provides a challenge to the traditional deposit model, where physical copies of texts enforced a practical limit on how many users could ­access Legal Deposit materials. Were the UK Web Archive to be made freely available to remote users, it could undermine the ability of content providers to remain profitable. The e-Legal Deposit regulations contain several challenges to the idea that the web is an inherently democratising space for users, but a liberal approach to providing access could well have unintended negative implications for others.

We are working with academic legal deposit libraries because their objectives are subtly different to those of the national libraries. All Legal Deposit libraries share a concern for posterity, which is evident from the current focus in the literature on the vital issues of digital preservation, technical infrastructure, and the need to secure digital materials for the long term. How­ever, the Bodleian and Cambridge University libraries also need to serve their current users. We will therefore be producing case studies which identify where e-legal deposit challenges the links that exist between the service remit of academic libraries, the changing nature of digital research in the humanities and social sciences, and the rights of content creators to protect their intellectual property.


We have two key aims with this project: first, to provide a deeper understanding of the library service implications of ­e-Legal Deposit for the Bodleian Library and Cambridge University Libraries; and second, to explore how libraries and policymakers can balance the needs of contemporary users, publishers, and posterity.

We hope to provide a timely study that will inform best practice to the benefit of legislators, publishers and users alike. Equally importantly, we aim to shed light on how current digital library collections will be constituted, used, and understood in the coming years and decades.
We would be delighted to hear from anybody with an involvement or interest in these issues, and look forward to working with the library community to develop our understanding of the nature, and implications, of the nascent ‘digital universe’.

Update Magazine

This article was originally published in CILIP Update Magazine, May 2017.

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Image source: The interior of Duke Humphrey's Library, in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford by David Iliff from Wikipedia used under CC BY-SA 3.0 original cropped and resized.

Digital Library Futures: the impact of e-legal deposit in the academic sector is a two year Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project which runs until April 2019, led by Dr Paul Gooding -(University of East Anglia) and Prof. Melissa Terras (University College -London).