ALIA Melbourne 2014 Conference Report- The British Library in a Globalised World

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ALIA Melbourne Conference 2014- Tuesday morning session

Keynote address:
The British Library in a Globalised World: Roly Keating – Chief Executive of the British Library

I’m a bit of a British Library nerd, what with the maps and all, so I was pretty excited for the opportunity to see this first keynote address at the ALIA national conference. The first thing that strikes you when you hear anything about the BL is the special role that this place plays as a cultural institution not just for Britain but for the whole of Europe and beyond. It is an institution that broadly expands what we understand a library to be.

And how amazing is this expansion. Not only do the BL take care of thousands of years’ worth of history in the form of literature and cultural artefacts but also curate the content of ‘now’ and what may be happening into the future. Their brilliant library website is a portal into the traditional library collection but also a place to showcase cutting edge digital curation and technology. And their building, discussed at the opening of the address, is the home of exhibitions and events.

Roly went through some of the projects that are currently happening at the BL. Most of these projects hinge on digitisation and the BL has a robust policy framework for digitisation into the future. The International Dunhuang Project: The Silk Road Online is digitising texts and artefacts from the history of the Silk Road and includes many major partner organisations from around the world. This looks very impressive and will become a major cultural resource for the whole world to enjoy. There is also the ongoing work of digitising illuminated manuscripts. Turning the pages is custom built software that allows users to read through priceless manuscripts from around the world and throughout history.

Apart from deciding I may have to run away to work for the British Library, my main take home messages from Roly’s presentation was the importance of the institution in preserving and making available the treasures of the world. He also mentioned Europeana and the Digital Public Library of America as partner institutions that are also doing fantastic work in this area.

The other main point that struck me here, and the following presentations, is one that I have been thinking about for a while now. That is the potential for libraries to bring to life their historical material using new technology. Via the internet, people from all walks of life can interact with texts and artefacts that would otherwise be inaccessible. The BL is working with digitisation projects in many languages and cultures, partnering with libraries, museums and the like from all around the world. There are such exciting examples of this work from the institutions mentioned above right through to public libraries.

I really believe that this is where library technology is at its best and the scope for projects in this area is endless and more so into the future as technology becomes easier to use. In a world where the book is becoming a file, these collections and our curation of them will define each public library and place libraries at the centre of cultural preservation for future generations.

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