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Tech politics: libertarians and the Library


11:49 am - February 19th 2009

by DonaldS    


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A year ago, I wrote a piece here about the great art of the Gothic and Renaissance periods, and how we owe its existence to the Dead Hand of the (Tuscan) State. But where should we look for actions of slightly more modern government working to enrich our lives? Certainly not in the unending flow of nutty, illiberal laws; nor in the insidious creep of compliance culture (subject of a memorable Stephen Fry podcast). So, here’s an idea: look to the British Library.

More specifically, their Turning the Pages project, 10 years in the developing, that put our national library in the very first rank of learning innovation worldwide. (See the video.) The project’s achievement has been to digitize 15 (so far) of the Library’s most valuable manuscripts, and deliver them inside an interactive online environment that re-creates the experience of handling them in the raw.

The interface allows you to zoom right in, to examine the books close-up in a way that would be impossible through a display case. To experience their magic and appreciate their craft, wherever you happen to live. The original Lindisfarne Gospels, the Sherborne Missal and Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an are now viewable by anyone with access to broadband Internet—most of us, in other words. As well as fulfilling an obvious cultural-historical remit, replication preserves these treasures (digitally at least) forever.

Of course, the job could have been done by the private sector; but the fact that it wasn’t is surely down to the unknown, unmeasured (or unknowable and ummeasurable), and very long-term, monetary returns from such a venture. In fact, there has been commercial interest, from overseas, including from private book collectors and the institutions that guard what’s left of Ancient Egypt. Some project costs will be recouped as a result.

More important still, non-profit entities in the UK have access to the BL’s technology at a price that doesn’t even recover those costs for the Library. Leeds’ Henry Moore Institute was among the first to make use of the technology.

Speaking at Online Information 2008 (#onlineinfo2008) in December, the BL’s Barry Smith trailed a project by Newcastle Public Libraries due to launch in 2009 (“before June”, Anne Waller, Newcastle Collections Project Officer, told me). They’ve chosen 12 texts from the city’s collection that capture the unique cultural, linguistic, and pictorial heritage of the North-East from a variety of perspectives.

NPL will make available to us all the originals of such books as The Howdy and the Upgetting (written c. 1790 in dialect) and Gray’s Chorographia (1649). The Heritage Lottery Fund grant to cover the project, which includes digitization, conservation and the building of a custom website to launch in tandem with Newcastle’s new city library, was £429,000.

Perhaps projects like this have no measurable or commercial value. But they certainly have value; the queues at the Turning the Pages consoles inside the British Library tell you that. And they’re only possible because the Library is run on the basis that it’s for us all, something that crass anti-state “libertarians” usually misunderstand and always under-estimate.

Image courtesy of Steve Cadman’s flickr set.

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About the author
Donald is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a travel journalist, editor, author and copywriter. In the wake of the 2005 General Election, he co-founded and edited The Sharpener for a couple of years. He writes the occasional book or newspaper article for money, as well as sharing his thoughts here for free. Also at: hackneye donaldstrachan.com
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Story Filed Under: Arts ,Education ,Libertarians ,Media ,Technology

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Reader comments


An anarchist sits on a Piano, a Conservative would prefer you learned to play it , a socialist thinks its an elitist means of class suppression and diverts the funds to inclusive the community relations through face paint .
We have an argument ,do we not ,about the ‘quality’ of the art which receives patronage and it appears that a warlord or merchant Prince had a lot better taste than a bureaucratic slug commissioning soft propaganda for collectivism . I am not surprised The equation of all any sort of order with “The state” in its 20th century guise is absurd. William the Municipal Socilaist , did not invade us as far as I know . I would not want a return to kings commissioning Mozart to write opera ,tempting though you make it . I see a role for government in funding orchestras , great homes and artefacts , museums and yes Libraries .
I don’t think many Conservatives would disagree with that although the vehicle of collective cultural activity does not have to be the state .In an ideal Conservative world we would have a more coherent society in which the resources to appreciate art were wide spread and common understandings enabled the government to act as commissioners on all our behalf .
It is the Liberal left that wish us fragmented into atomised barbarians and once they have achieved that then of course , why should a Big Brother fan pay taxes for the LSO ?
Your point that much about the past was much better than the present is good one though and one we do not hear often enough

I think you are crassly mischaracterising the libertarian position. There is tremendous value in such a project – though 10 years work for 15 books strikes me as a slightly poor outcome. I imagine a private sector organisation could have eeked a bit more value out of Armadillo Systems, the contractor that have evidently been used by the British library. The libertarian thesis is essentially:

While beneficial outcomes of state investment (when there are any) are seen immediately, the consequences of the fact that funds have been appropriated from somewhere/someone else are unseen. You do not know how successfully the funds could have been used if they had been left in private hands.

Statists of all sorts tend to underestimate the tremendous benefits of voluntary action. Wikipedia didn’t need state action to work, nor do many of the tremendous number of free book databases available online. I don’t think there is any reason to believe this sort of project that the British Library has done could not happen sooner or later were it a private charity relying on individual donations.

Nick if Libertarianism consists of lower taxes then I am one . Libertarians that I have heard seem to be under the impression that the natural state of man is freedom when in fact it is enslavement by the nearest powerful person. Furthermore it focuses so much on individual Liberty that things like a Communal art cease to have any meaning . Order is important in varying degrees , coercion is always a poor fauilture but in the end its better than anarchy and an encouragement provided from the centre like funding cultural commanding heights is surely to be valued

Can you imagine a Libertarian army ?
What about a Libertarian Poem … *(No rules =No meaning )
What about Libertarian Planning permission ?
Libertarian society , what about the children in it ?

I can`t see the sense of it , surely the pitch of perfection is expressed by those wonderful people gods who are Conservatives with a Libertarian streak .. (ahem)

#2 Nick

Where do I misrepresent the libertarian position? I say you misunderstand/under-estimate the value of stuff being run by the state on behalf of us all. You confirm that.

> I don’t think there is any reason to believe this sort of project that the British Library has done could not happen sooner or later were it a private charity relying on individual donations.

Other than that it didn’t happen like that, no I guess not. But it didn’t happen like that, did it? That’s my point. Nobody did it. So the state/BL did it, and did a great job. End of parable.

How many books have Google scanned so far?

Counting the ones they’re being sued over, or not?

Seriously, what’s your point? I haven’t written anywhere that private companies can’t or shouldn’t also be doing cool online stuff with words and books, if that’s what you’re implying. Just that in this case they didn’t, and the state did, and did a good job. I know that’s kinda distressing for a “libertarian”.

Erm, Donald, this is really quite crass and stupid. Sorry, but it’s just such a poor argument that you’re undermining yourself with it.

No libertarian would ever say that “everything government does is a failure”. Some libertarians would say that it is immoral to take people’s money without their consent and spend it on projects that they would not necessarily choose to fund themselves. The fact that sometimes those projects result in outcomes that everyone (well, not quite everyone – I assume that the majority of the population will never actually look at the website or exhibition even if it’s free) likes could just as well be the stopped clock telling the right time twice a day. It proves nothing. It’s not “distressing” for anyone. Likewise I’m sure that there are many groups, organisations or institutions that you disapprove of which occasionally do good things, and I’m sure that this is not “distressing” for you when it happens.

Perhaps projects like this have no measurable or commercial value. But they certainly have value; the queues at the Turning the Pages consoles inside the British Library tell you that.

Did you even read this after writing it? Seriously, just read it again. First sentence: the value of this project cannot be measured. Second sentence: the value can be measured by the size of the queues. I mean, what the fuck?

And, of course, it’s also worth pointing out that many great works have been preserved through the efforts of private individuals and groups. We have a word for this: philanthropy, closely linked to the concept of altruism. ‘Private’ is not a synonym for ‘selfish’ or ‘greedy’ or ‘money-grubbing’. I, and plenty of others, happily have and will continue to contribute to private organisations (e.g. the National Trust) that preserve many important pieces of heritage. I hope this doesn’t distress you.

An aside: It has become apparent to me that these days I’m often arguing a libertarian position here, despite not being a libertarian myself. The main reason for this is that most of the attacks on ‘libertarianism’ are particularly ill-informed and occasionally downright silly. I’m not saying that libertarians are necessarily right about everything, but they’re certainly not wrong for any of the reasons given here.

As I recall, the project to digitise the British Library’s collection was one that was put forward as a potential centrepiece for the UK’s millennium ‘celebrations’, but lost out to the fucking Dome.

Personally, I’d have much rather seen the money spent on digitising the British Library’s collection, although I would have put in a plea for some of it to be directed towards key manuscripts at the Bodlean as well – let’s start with Beowulf and do the lot!

In fact, when we’ve finished with the two libraries, there’s several other collections we could be usefully investing in to make them accessible via the net, starting with the National History Museum, the National Museum of Science and Industry and archives of the Royal Society.

Oh, and, if its possible and the records and recordings still exist, I’d quite like a complete (as possible) archive of the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures as well – at the very least, we should have a site giving access to all the televised ones.

As for talking about this in terms of the roles of the public and private sector, I wonder if the latter is not something of a misnomer in the context of this issue.

For the most part, historically, the majority of any private sector involvement in projects of this kind has been philanthropically rather than commercially driven and the central questions that raises are more about the changing nature of the business and the global economy.

The heyday of private sector cultural philanthropy in Britain was the Victorian era, a period during which ‘big business’ was still very much rooted in local communities and indentified with specific individuals, the industialist and entrepreneurs (and their families) who founded and ran the businesses.

If you look at what were the ‘boom towns’ of the mid-late Victorian period, most of the major public buildings, libraries, parks, museums, even universities (Birmingham University was more or less founded by Joseph Chamberlain), etc. were funded and built by the town’s business leaders and were, amongst other things, symbolic of the status of those individuals and their successes.

In Britain, as business have become more corporate and corporations both much more anonymous and impersonal than they used to be and much less rooted in a particular location or even, inthe case of multinationals, a particular country, then that whole area of privately funded public philanthropy has diminished.

It’s maybe an odd, but slightly sad, thing to reflect on, but in the business culture of only 100-150 years ago, a project such as this one would likely have had several wealthy industrialist and businessmen almost literally beating down the doors of the British Library to put money into it in order to have their name attached to the project, and all in the name of posterity.

Oops – to be fair, I’ve just checked and the RI does now have a web archive of most of the televised Christmas Lectures from 1960 onwards.

Sad to say, however, the web archive section of their site is pants due to the crap navigation system and a search and indexing facility that doesn’t work properly, which means that to find anything other the most recent lectures you have to fanny about for ages browsing through the archive five videos at a time, then add the video to a ‘lightbox’ before you can watch it because they’ve tried to leverage the archive system out of one designed to handle pay per view material.

That’s fucking frustrating – the stuff’s there but its a complete pain in the arse to find what you want and access it, when it should be made as easy as possible to get what you want. All they need is a few quid to spend on puttiing the archive out to its own decicated site with a user friendly interface along the line of the Beeb’s IPlayer section and you’d have cracking educational resource.

Still, if you can be arsed with fighting the crappy interface, there are some corking lectures on there, especially Attenborugh’s 1973 series on the language of animals and Carl Sagan’s 1977 lectures on the planets.

“I haven’t written anywhere that private companies can’t or shouldn’t also be doing cool online stuff with words and books, if that’s what you’re implying. Just that in this case they didn’t, and the state did, and did a good job. I know that’s kinda distressing for a “libertarian”.”

Donald, you are just not thinking dynamically about this. You don’t know what would have happened if there had been less state control over things like libraries, or less taxation generally. If so, there would have been more money around in people’s private pockets doing many other interesting things. These things could have included digitising libraries. You can’t say “It didn’t happen, so the state stepped” when it could just as easily be “It didn’t happen because the state stepped in”.

Were you classify the “libertarian” position is here:

“Perhaps projects like this have no measurable or commercial value. But they certainly have value; the queues at the Turning the Pages consoles inside the British Library tell you that. And they’re only possible because the Library is run on the basis that it’s for us all, something that crass anti-state “libertarians” usually misunderstand and always under-estimate.”

If libertarians agreed with that, you would also claim that we wouldn’t see ANY value in the NHS, but that we miss the important fact of people going into hospital and (sometimes) getting treated and cured. That is manifestly absurd. What we argue is that state involvement usually adds a disutility to any undertaking. In other words, the NHS would work a lot better if its incentives were aligned more towards treating patients that pleasing civil servants.

> ‘Private’ is not a synonym for ’selfish’ or ‘greedy’ or ‘money-grubbing’… I hope this doesn’t distress you.

Of course not. As I’ve already said, I’m not arguing that private individuals or bodies shouldn’t or don’t do good, even great things. Merely that in this case, no one did, so the state did, and did it well.

> Did you even read this after writing it? Seriously, just read it again.

Either you need to read it again; or I need to write it better. I’m not “measuring the value” by the length of those queues. Merely saying that queues suggest that the project has value, even if not a wholly commercial one. Is that hard to grasp?

> What we argue is that state involvement usually adds a disutility to any undertaking.

And the disutility that’s been added by the state in this case is… what precisely? I mean, if you’re going to argue that state involvement adds disutility, then you ought to be able to tell us what the specific disutility is here, or all you’re left with is a textbook “libertarian” slogan. So far, you’ve got a counterfactual (or “thinking dynamically”, as you put it): what could have happened is this. But it didn’t. The state/BL built TTP, and it’s great. That’s it. I don’t suggest this is a complex argument, or that it “proves” much. That wasn’t my intention. Quite the opposite.

Well, for one, I didn’t say that it always adds a disutility or that the disutility is detectable in every case. But when you generalise, you tend to find that private methods of allocating resources are more efficient than public methods. The problem of detecting an individual counter-factual dissipates when we compare how an overall policy of central allocation versus market allocation pan out. I suppose the difficulty in ‘cultural’ cases is that there is no widespread agreement on what cultural value is, but from my own experience, I don’t think market economies create any less cultural value than ones that include more government spending – probably more when I look at all the modern cultural artefacts emanating by the minute from the United States.

DonaldS wrote:

Either you need to read it again; or I need to write it better. I’m not “measuring the value” by the length of those queues. Merely saying that queues suggest that the project has value, even if not a wholly commercial one. Is that hard to grasp?

Er, yes, it is. Maybe I’m just being dense, but it sounds like you’re saying that the value can’t be measured, but that the size of the queues is somehow related to the value. Presumably, bigger queues equals more value. In what way is that not a measurement?

I suspect we’ve reached the angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin moment on this thread, but… Do you really need to be able to measure the value of, say, St Patrick’s Day to be able to suggest that it has value? I’m thinking not. That is all.

> when you generalise, you tend to find that private methods of allocating resources are more efficient than public methods

When you generalise to that degree, alas, you’re generalising way beyond anything that has any meaning, for my tastes. IMHO, “It Depends” is all I’d commit myself to.

We could ask Guinness if St Patrick’s has a value.

“When you generalise to that degree, alas, you’re generalising way beyond anything that has any meaning, for my tastes. IMHO, “It Depends” is all I’d commit myself to.”

Well, ok, but I think you might want a slightly more inspiring argument if you want to commit other people’s wealth to state projects. Citing the odd successful anecdote will really only persuade people who are already predisposed towards state action.

Let’s see if I’ve got this right:

1. this project’s been going for 10 years

2. in that time it’s digitised 15 books; that’s what, one page per day?

3. it only works on Microsoft, or possibly Microsoft and Mac. (It certainly doesn’t work on my Linux box). Their “advanced” interface requires Microsoft Silverlight.

4. the images for each page are not available under a CC license

5. and people are supposed to be impressed by this???

If that’s the best the Briitsh Library can do, it might as well be abolished and all the books sold for scrap — I expect they’d fuel a power station for a day or two.

More realistically the BL’s management need to be sacked.

Crikey, who’d have thought a relatively straightforward post could generate such high intensity comments?!

Leaving aside the point made by several about the efficiency of the project, I’d say:

(1) One should differentiate between the decayed libertarianism which seems these days so popular in blogland, and the more thoughtful liberal political theory going under that name. Certainly a Friedman or a Hayek (who anyway repudiated the label) would be happy to concede that public goods exist, and should be paid for, and that this has the potential to fulfil them.

(2) Is it a public good? Well, it is excludable but it isn’t rivalrous. Its excludability makes it attractive to commercialisation; advertising also makes it so. But its being non-rivalrous still leaves open the possibility of market under-production (my guess is that the likes of The Howdy and the Upgetting would be the victims here).

(3) My own view (as a conservative) would be that leaving your cultural heritage to be made publicly available only at the whim of GoogleBooks and its business model and stock valuation is dangerous. So for that reason, I’m supportive of ideas like this (I’m with Unity – better than domes), leaving aside implementation.

(4) Nick’s proposition is that in a libertarian world it’d happen anyway, because people would be free to spend their money to buy it. Possibly, but improbably – porn and online gambling will beat the Lindisfarne Gospels, methinks. That isn’t to say “high culture” (does that mean anything now?) is unsupportable by modern market demand – TV these days produces some of its best, typically from the US commercialised system. But here we’re talking about extremely minority pursuits. I might have a quick look at the Lindisfarne Gospels – but I wouldn’t pay a lot of money to do so; we’re down to the vagaries of philanthropy for that, and I think safeguarding our cultural heritage shouldn’t be left to the risk.

But I do wish they’d move a bit more quickly and efficiently, as I’m paying for it.

I can agree with all of that Blimpish – good comment.


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New blog post: Tech politics: libertarians and the Library http://tinyurl.com/ccvkxy

  2. DonaldS

    Crikey, with all this excitement, I almost forgot that I wrote me a post at Liberal Conspiracy: http://bit.ly/pYkio

  3. Liberal Conspiracy

    New blog post: Tech politics: libertarians and the Library http://tinyurl.com/ccvkxy





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