New legal deposit laws include digital data

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In future, publishers will be required to deposit digital information that is published in the UK into the country's national libraries. Siân Harris investigates what this means

A new bill from the UK government promises to pave the way for digital data to be preserved in legal deposits in the six national libraries of the UK and Ireland. The Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003, which was spearheaded by the British Library, came into force in February of this year and is set to extend the existing regulations, which preserve print publications, to other forms of media, including offline electronic information and websites.

The idea of legal deposit dates back several hundred years. The purpose is to collect a nation's published output as systematically and comprehensively as possible, so that these publications are available to current and future generations of researchers. Until the recent bill was passed, this process was governed in the UK by an act passed in 1911, which catered well for print publications but, not surprisingly, failed to anticipate the invention and uptake of new, non-print media. With the increasing volume of important material published in electronic and other non-print formats, the lack of a statutory requirement to collect this content was starting to pose a threat.

The case for new legislation may sound straightforward, but bringing it into practice was anything but simple, according to John Byford, head of legal deposit strategy for the British Library, who described the process to attendees of the Library + Information Show, held in London in April. This, he explained, was because it was not sponsored by the government, so it required negotiations with all the legal deposit libraries, the publishers, and members of parliament from all political parties. It also had to cater not just for the information available now, but to anticipate future publication methods.

'Publishers should not notice any differences in the deposit of printed material,' predicted Byford. However, the act gives the UK's Secretary of State, after consultation with libraries and publishers, the power to extend to other media, including those that may not have been invented yet, the statutory requirement to deposit print publications. This means that any future changes can be made through regulation, rather than acts of parliament.

This may also sound simple, but the work to implement this is only just beginning. Working with non-print media raises many more issues that must be addressed. As Guy Daines, who is principal policy analyst for the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), pointed out at the conference: 'We have had hundreds of years to archive print materials so we are pretty good at that, but we are comparatively young in preserving digital material, particularly that which was born digital.'

Taking up the challenge An advisory panel will be set up towards the end of 2004 to take on this challenge, and initiate agreements between organisations such as publishers and government bodies. Its initial focus will be offline materials, such as electronic publications issued on magnetic tapes, magnetic disks, or optical disks such as CD-ROMs or DVDs. This task is simplified by the fact that many of these are already being preserved, as part of a voluntary agreement that was made in January 2000. Under this scheme, offline publications are deposited in the form in which they are made available to the public, together with anything else that is required to enable them to be used. Where multiple formats are published, the preference for deposit is IBM PC compatible format.

'In the short term [publishers] will not notice any differences in the deposit of non-print material,' commented Byford. 'The Joint Committee on Legal Deposit (JCLD), made up of representatives from the legal deposit libraries and the publisher trade bodies [including a representative of STM publishers], will monitor this scheme and consider the possibility of extending the voluntary scheme'.

In future, these extensions could take in all electronic publications and websites, first in a voluntary capacity and then through statutory requirements. Although Byford believes regulation covering online content is unlikely to appear in the short term, the issue of depositing electronic content raises a number of interesting and tricky questions that the advisory panel must address as a matter of urgency. These include deciding what defines a publication, what is required to view it now, and how future-proofing is to be assured.

Electronic publications may, for example, require separately licensed software for their operation. The current agreement for offline content recommends that publishers obtain any necessary licences on behalf of the deposit library but, as the scheme is voluntary, publishers are under no obligation to deposit their material at all if they are unable or unwilling to do this. Voluntary, and eventually mandatory, deposit schemes also have to ensure that appropriate printing out and backup on new technology can be done. This becomes even more complex with the increasing trend away from offline media such as CD-ROMs to online published content and databases.

The location of a publication is an equally tricky question, which JCLD is actively considering. The definition of UK publications was relatively straightforward when it related to documents on paper that originate in the UK or are distributed to people in the UK. But with the web, traditional boundaries are removed. An item published in one country can be easily accessed elsewhere, and other countries might want to archive it. Byford said that the committee is working closely with colleagues in the rest of Europe to prevent the issue of electronic publishers being asked to deposit their journal articles, for example, in more than one country.

Looking beyond national borders is important in the task of comprehensive preservation of electronic publications. One interesting case-study from the Netherlands is the arrangement that was agreed last summer between STM publishing giant Elsevier and the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (KB), the National Library of the Netherlands. This library will become the first official digital archive for Elsevier journals, and will receive digital copies of all Elsevier journals on its web platform, ScienceDirect. This agreement covers approximately 1,500 journals and caters for any new journals that are launched in the future, as well as digitised back files, which Elsevier expects to complete within two years. The end result is estimated to be in excess of 7TB of data.

Elsevier is a strong champion of the idea of electronic deposit, as Karen Hunter, who is the company's senior vice-president for strategy, and responsible for this digital archiving initiative, explained when the deal was announced. 'As we move toward journals being available only in electronic form and being held centrally on publishers' computers, the public has the right to be assured that, should a publisher go out of business, these files will not be lost,' she said. 'This agreement provides that assurance for Elsevier titles, which constitute an essential part of the core scientific literature currently published.'

'In this era of electronic publishing, new arrangements are needed globally in order to preserve our intellectual heritage,' added Wim van Drimmelen, director general of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. 'The KB wants to take an active part in these evolving new arrangements. It's an exciting challenge to find ways of coping with the fast pace of change in platforms and formats'. To this end the KB has partnerships with companies such as IBM and RAND, as well as major publishers and other national libraries like the NEDLIB partners, the Library of Congress, the National Library of Australia, and the British Library.

Such partnerships and voluntary agreements provide a way for libraries and publishers to work out the technical and logistical issues of depositing online data. But some countries have, like the UK, also taken steps at governmental level to safeguard their digital heritage. In Germany, new legislation has been drafted to cover all types of material, and the country's voluntary scheme to obtain online material and websites has been in operation since March 2002. The French government has issued a directive to ensure that the national library will collect all electronic material. Norway and Denmark have similar schemes, and are actively collecting digital material in all information carriers, including websites. In Finland, legislation was introduced in March 2003 to extend legal deposit to websites (previous legislation already included other electronic material). And, outside Europe, New Zealand has also enacted legislation in this area.

With these initiatives it seems that governments are starting to take the issue of digital heritage seriously, but there are still many questions to answer. Comprehensive global preservation of online publications is unlikely to be a reality in the near future.

Further information
Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003:
Voluntary deposit code of practice: