Legal deposit goes electronic… for better or worse?

The concept of legal deposit is an old one, and has been in place for nearly 600 years, being introduced not long after Gutenberg’s marvellous invention of moveable type.

The first country to implement the concept was France in 1537, in the Ordonnance de Montpellier introduced by Francis 1.  Many countries have some form of LD legislation, with the depository for the books most often being the national library of the country. In numerous cases the comprehensive collecting of the nation’s publications goes back several centuries. However, legal deposit is not a universal practice, and the IIPC (International Internet Preservation Consortium) provides a comprehensive list of countries with Legal Deposit legislation, and those still waiting to have such laws in place.

The Bodleian Libraries at Oxford, and the University Library at Cambridge, are the only two academic libraries in the UK’s LD scheme, the other four are national – ie, public – libraries.  Until recently all deposits were in physical format – books and journals and loose-leaf service updates. But a new age has commenced. We are now in an era of Electronic Legal Deposit (ELD).

Electronic Legal Deposit

Initially, we thought ELD would mean the same as open access, but restricted to the LD libraries. We were naïve. Publishers were not going to allow electronic access to extend beyond current restrictions for paper legal deposit. In the UK, the national library, the British Library, negotiates with publishers on behalf of the 6 Legal Deposit libraries. Some publishers are very keen to change to ELD – this means they can cease depositing books/journals in the LD libraries, thus saving themselves some costs. Providing the digital version of a book or journal to the national library costs nothing extra, because it has already been created for the market.

The British Library has an agreed list of the preferred publishers for digital copies, and those which, for now, the LD libraries would prefer to retain paper deposits. This is to prevent a wholesale changeover by publishers, leaving LD libraries in some disarray in trying to manage a smooth transfer.

The restrictions are that digital copies can only be consulted in Legal Deposit libraries, on specific computer terminals located in those libraries. Any single resource – a book, or a journal article (not a complete journal issue) can only be accessed by one person at a time across a library system – eg, in our instance, one of the 26 libraries in the Bodleian Libraries group. Printing will be allowed, but downloading will not. Access is thus similar to paper LD, with one user at one time consulting an item, whatever its format.

This means that ELD is not an additional resource for the LD libraries. It is an alternative resource, the deposited item has gone from physical to digital, but how we can use it is not altered. One could see this as imposing pre 21st century thinking in a digital era. Another viewpoint is that the concept of LD is preserved – a copy of the digital book/journal is held by the national library for posterity. So the purpose and single point of access is preserved; the delivery method has moved into the 21st century. In addition, the British Library addresses very clearly the LD guidelines for publishers who charge for access to their digital materials. Their obligation to deposit remains the same as for paper depositing.

ELD and web harvesting

Many sources addressing ELD are actually referring to the role of the library in web archiving.  Access to web archives harvested by national libraries is usually governed by the same protocols as ELD and ordinary LD.  Access to the archive is restricted to the depository library, on terminals located there, and concurrent use is restricted to one user.

By way of example, the Bibliothèque nationale de France description of  digital legal deposit refers to web harvesting.  However, the following phrase implies that the harvester itself will collect widely -: “The law also stipulates that no obstacle such as login, password or other form of access restriction may be used by producers to restrict this process.”  There is no specific obligation mentioned to deposit digital of books and journals pro-actively.

Web archiving is being undertaken via harvesting a selection of websites consistently, at regular intervals, and making these available under LD conditions. There is also an extensive program of organised harvesting of the websites of specific events for posterity, such as national elections, Olympic Games, the uprisings in countries. These will be the archives of the future, and many librarians are involved in these projects.

The positive aspect of electronic legal deposit includes the issue of storage – the requirement for shelving will diminish – and also instant access for the user, with no waiting for delivery of books held off site. However, the user still has to physically attend one of the LD libraries to read the resources online, at a computer terminal, (not yet on a laptop or via a tablet). And if another person is using the item online at that time, our user is locked out.

As with any period of change, how good we are at ensuring the preservation of our present will not be able to be judged objectively for some time yet.  The complexities of the technologies, and the almost incomprehensible depth and breadth of the internet, make this a far more challenging task than was faced by our predecessors when moveable type took off as the new technology of its time.

(The Bodleian Libraries  have produced a very comprehensive guide to eLD practice at the Bodleian in a specific LibGuide )

 Ruth Bird