I was at the British Library earlier this week, and found sheets of official paper neatly laid out on each desk in the Humanities I Reading room. This sight makes me slightly nervous, as it can indicate an announcement of imminent industrial action, or a broken book-retrieving machine in the stacks, but in this case the papers turned out to be a questionnaire, an exercise by the private research consultancy Oxford Economics. As the Chief Executive of the BL explains in her covering letter, the aim of this research is to ‘quantify the impact of the Library on the
economy’, with a view to lobbying the government more effectively. UK
Some of the questions were simple enough, to capture economic activity associated with coming to the BL – how much do you spend on public transport to get here, how much do you spend on food in our cafe? But the two questions which gave me most food for thought were ones which conjured up an alternative world, in which access to a research library becomes (just?) a commodity, which can be purchased for the right price. What would be the maximum amount you would be willing to pay per month as a donation or subscription…? – how much would you fork out for the right to sit in these beautiful spaces and read Władysław Pociecha’s account of the 1519-21 Polish-Prussian war? Rather sheepishly, I wrote in pencil £25, because that’s slightly more than the sum you might pay for membership of a big scholarly association, like the Renaissance Society of America. Then, a question which made my eyes widen at my desk: Imagine the BL… allowed existing Readers to sell their Pass. What is the minimum amount you would be willing to accept? What is that piece of green plastic worth to you?
|What's it worth to you?|
In this hypothetical scenario, you can imagine BL cards traded furiously on e-bay, or exchanged for cash on seedy street corners behind King’s Cross station. I conjured up some fantastical sums in my head (£5K, £10K?), before putting my pen down because, cheesy though it sounds, to an academic a BL pass is probably priceless. Even scholars live in a material world, and function within a wider economy, whether they like it or not, so there’s no point in putting one’s head totally in the sand. The BL has to make a loud case for public funding, and it is of course regrettable that education and research (the pursuit of better understanding of the world) increasingly have to be justified in purely economic terms. But even in this climate, the hypothetical act of putting a price on an individual's lifetime access to ‘the world’s knowledge’ (to quote the BL’s slogan), to the national research collection, still has a rather dystopian chill to it. So I’m still carrying the questionnaire around in my bag, unsure whether to hand it over to Oxford Economics or not.