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News Corp.’s Other Murdoch: How Dare the British Library Charge for Its Digital Newspaper Archive!

Please feel free to file this in the C.E.Oh-no-he-di’nt folder: News Corp.’s James Murdoch has publicly slapped plans by the British Library, one of the most venerable libraries in the world, for digitizing its newspaper archive.

british library

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Please feel free to file this in the C.E.Oh-no-he-di’nt folder: News Corp.’s James Murdoch has publicly slapped plans by the British Library, one of the most venerable libraries in the world, for digitizing its newspaper archive.

For those of you over on the other side of the pond, or otherwise not in the know, the British Library is the U.K.’s official national library. It’s been around in various forms for around a century, and since 1911 it has been the legal national deposit library–meaning that by an Act of Parliament the BL has to be given a copy of everything published in the U.K. (for example, my PhD thesis is in there somewhere, probably as a microdot). It’s thronged with readers and researchers at certain times of year, and anyone with a permanent address and a reasonable requirement to access the archives can get in.

Among the vaults of this national treasure are the Newspaper Archives, with a nearly complete set of every paper published in the U.K. and Ireland since 1840–the archive’s existence aided by a legal deposit Act that dates further back, to 1869. It’s even got London-based papers back to 1801. All of this paper and microfilm requires some 45km of shelving. And it’s this archive that’s got the Murdochs all riled up now.

The BL has decided to digitize the archive, you see, and make it available to the public online. For a fee. James doesn’t like this and said so loudly at a speech to launch University College London’s center for digital humanities (note the irony). According to Murdoch this is a clear sign that a public body is encroaching on free market territory and standing to profit from its legally protected status as an archive. This is dangerous stuff that may even end up “harming the market,” says James, adding “this is not simply being done for posterity, nor to make free access for library users easier, but also for commercial gain via a paid for website.”

Hmmm. How does James think the BL will otherwise pay for the digital translation of 45km worth of, in some cases, fragile and rare paper-based information? Extra taxation for the man-in-the-street? And damn any thought of preserving this precious stuff (think of it–the industrial revolution, the World Wars, the human interest pieces through the ages) for the future: The commercial needs of money-grabbing, truth-distorting entities like News Corp. should come first, it would seem.

And talking of truth-distortion, Murdoch also confirmed something else during his speech: That News Corp. has actually been in quiet discussions for ages with Google over the search giant paying for the privilege of aggregating News Corp.-published news. Yep, this is the same Google that James’ father Rupert has been loudly, aggressively denouncing as a thief for years. Public headline-grabbing antagonism and private business chumminess? Sounds suitably historic behavior to me.

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British Library image by Flickr user SteveCadman.

To keep up with this news follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. That QR code on the left will take your smartphone to my Twitter feed too.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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