News | April 6, 2023

UK and Ireland Legal Deposit Libraries Celebrate Digital Anniversary

Bodleian Libraries

During April this year the six legal deposit libraries of the UK and Ireland, the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales, the Bodleian Libraries, Cambridge University Library and The Library of Trinity College Dublin, are celebrating 10 years of collecting and preserving digital publications.

In the 10 years since the introduction of non-print (electronic) legal deposit, they have collected more than 10 million journal articles and nearly 800,000 books. They have made available 3 terabytes of digital mapping, including annual snapshots of Ordnance Survey large-scale mapping of Britain. Electronic legal deposit includes government and official publications from the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, publications from charities and campaigning organisations, sheet music, academic journals, local histories, and publications from self-publishers through to the largest publishers in the UK.  

This record of digital and online publishing from the UK, enabled by electronic legal deposit regulations, includes regular snapshots of UK websites, amounting to millions of websites, billions of files and 1.3 petabytes of data. The UK Web Archive has over 100 curated collections, with subjects as varied as global events like the Covid-19 pandemic, general elections since 2005, the London Olympics and Paralympics in 2012, celebrations marking the centenary of the Easter Rising in Ireland in 2016, Brexit and every aspect of local and national life, providing an essential resource for researchers now and in the future.

Digital collecting provides a record of what may often be the only surviving copy of millions of pages of web content, as information shared publicly on the web is rapidly changed, deleted and replaced. The commitment to electronic legal deposit has also provided the UK Web Archive, established in 2004, with increased capacity to collect the UK’s online heritage. The UK Web Archive now holds millions of websites, helping people to understand current events and the recent past by preserving digital material before it is lost.

Over the last decade, the UK Web Archive has been used by researchers to reveal significant findings around a plethora of topics including;

  • how immigration was presented in political ephemera, campaign websites, and on social media during the 2016 EU referendum at the British Library
  • online communication about health during the COVID-19 pandemic, undertaken by the National Library of Scotland with support from the Wellcome Trust
  • reflections on the centenary of the Easter Rising through The Easter Rising 1916 Web Archive, a special collaboration in 2016 between the Library of Trinity College Dublin, the Bodleian Library and the British Library, using websites captured from both Irish and UK web domains that reflected on this pivotal moment in modern Irish history

Electronic legal deposit regulations have also offered the legal deposit libraries the opportunity to collaboratively address the challenges of mass collection, storage and access provision, ensuring that the content will be securely preserved for future generations.

Amina Shah, Chief Executive of the National Library of Scotland and current chair of the Legal Deposit Implementation Group, said: "The collaboration between the six legal deposit libraries of the UK and Ireland and our partners in the publishing industry has resulted in an incredible resource. From the vast expanse of websites, blogs, news sites, and other digital publishing, we now have a digital record of the world we live in. Between us we have effectively created a seventh transnational library available to everyone, now and in the future."

Reflecting on ten years of electronic legal deposit, Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian and Head of Gardens, Libraries and Museums at Oxford University, said: "Ten years ago, working collaboratively with the other legal deposit libraries we expanded our collections to include this mass of digital publications from ebooks to billions of websites, blogs and other domains. As we reach this milestone in the evolution of our collections, it is again time to rethink how and what we collect. The collaborative multi-national nature of the endeavour, working at scale, in partnership with publishers large and small is unparalleled in globally, and a matter of celebration itself.

"The value of what we collect now must be carefully considered: we should not prejudice the experience of future researchers by projecting current value systems on to them. We must collect as broadly as possible within the scope of legal deposit, as the enterprise is of critical importance for the future, as much as it is for the present."