Lessons From the Library

On a gray February afternoon in London, I wandered into the British Museum and discovered a grand reading room.

Surprisingly, there were no overstuffed Victorian armchairs but sleek 21st century flat-screen monitors. All were set on the museum’s content-rich site. Intrigued, I positioned myself in a cubicle, began paging through the site, and… fell asleep.

Jetlag conked me over the head. When I woke, I was too embarrassed to stick around. I took my circadian-confused body and banished it from the halls of British history. Had I stuck around, I would’ve been captivated by the digital savvy of Britain’s cherished museums and public institutions. Weeks later (after much-needed sleep), I found another incredible site organized by the British Library.

The British Library includes the British Museum, the National Library, and the National Lending Library. It receives a copy of every publication published in the United Kingdom and Ireland and incorporates over 3 million new items each year. It houses sound recordings from the 19th century to the present and archives more than 8 million stamps and philatelic materials. With a collection so immense, the British Library has plenty of content to post.

The way the content is provided and its unique, user-friendly applications make the British Library a particularly skilled Web content provider. The library recognizes it has the potential to manage and purvey massive quantities of information in new ways. It’s hardly the medieval “stack” system many of us tangled with during our college years.

For example, the library skillfully collected the sounds of Britain, including a pig killing in Lowick and the banter of the Burnley Football Club. It’s fascinating stuff to hear. The library goes one better: Wildlife sounds can be downloaded to mobile phones. Brilliant, as they say across the pond. I can think of hundreds of organizations that might offer similar fun. (Take note, San Diego Zoo and Metropolitan Opera.) Consider these other treasures from the British Library site:

  • Online images. High-resolution images of artwork can be purchased online; low-resolution versions are available for free use by individuals and students. This concept has applications elsewhere, too. If you’ve shot some fantastic images for an annual report, why not offer up a gallery of your finest work (all permissions secured, of course).
  • The Turning the Pages project. Using computer animation, the library invites users to turn the pages of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks and other manuscripts. It’s a far richer experience than staring into a glass display case. How can your organization show something it does in a new, more accessible manner?
  • Legal and consultancy services. Legal troubles? Want a patent? Looking for information on your competition? The British now head to the library’s Web site. Information is all presented in a highly accessible manner. Additionally, the library provides a service that will email the table of contents of select journals directly to users’ desktops within days of publication. Subscribers receive weekly search results on their computers. From there, a full article may be requested. Though not a novel concept, the ease of access is definitely noteworthy. It’s helped many pence-pinching entrepreneurs get vital information. The library frequently cites Mark Sheahan, Innovator of the Year 2003, who invented his Squeezeopen plastic containers with the help of information from the British Library Web site.

Interestingly, the library is also on the cutting edge of researching digital information preservation. How will we access information stored on CD-ROMs when the discs become obsolete? The library is helping ensure such data will survive.

This is clearly not the stuffy library of the past (where falling asleep in stalls was not an infrequent occurrence). It’s a vibrant organization that recognizes the value of its content in a clearly innovative manner. Of course, most organizations don’t have the depth and breadth of information the British Library does. So let the library inspire you.

Related reading