CIO interview: Lee Edwards, chief technology officer, The British Library

The British Library is starting a major IT overhaul to support its work in preserving the UK’s heritage of digital and physical knowledge

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The British Library is beginning a major technology transformation to enhance the ways in which it maintains, collects and preserves UK knowledge in digital and physical form, as well as how it makes that content available online and at its main London location.

The organisation’s core business purposes (see box below) have IT as a key enabler, with four priorities aimed at fundamentally changing its underlying infrastructure and enhancing scalability, as well as improving customer experience and internal systems.

The Library will be selecting partners to help with various aspects of the transformation project within the next few months, to supplement the skills of an IT function that currently employs 111 professionals.

“We want to ensure that the underpinning IT for the Library is delivered efficiently, robustly and is fit for purpose,” British Library chief technology officer Lee Edwards told Computer Weekly in an exclusive interview. “That is very important because without that, you end up spending a lot of money on IT, and that takes away from money you can spend on the corporate business.

“The simplification that we are going to bring to our technical architecture will be a massive enabler for the organisation. It will enable it to move more swiftly. It will be able to perform and scale more quickly. It will be able to run more efficiently.

“It will mean that the organisation can invest more money in areas that improve and bring on new services, rather than in just maintaining and keeping all the services running. But to achieve that is a huge technology change and we need third parties to assist us with that.”

Moving to a service-based approach

The first priority for Edwards’ team is transform the Library’s IT service delivery. This will involve rebuilding infrastructure in areas such as storage and networking, as well as moving to a service-based approach.

“What we need to do is improve the efficiency of the delivery of those services and that underlying infrastructure – the plumbing and wiring that the Library runs on,” says Edwards.

“Moving to infrastructure-, storage-, platform- and desktop-as-a-service will give the business the ability to expand its capacity.”

Edwards adds that the needs will become greater as the Library expands its collection and progresses with its digitisation work.

IT infrastructure at the British Library is mainly managed in-house. According to Edwards, although the organisation works with various suppliers for maintenance and licensing, it is a “very transactional” supplier support arrangement.

“If we have a fault on a network that has a server chassis, then we may get the hardware supplier out,” says Edwards. “But we don’t really have a strategic partnership, which is an issue we are looking to solve.

“We are moving away from a transactional to more of a strategic partnership approach, from in-house to what I am calling ‘balanced sourcing’, where we have services that are provided externally by external partners and we do some things in-house.

“We are engaging with the market [to find] partners that can bring their technology knowledge and skills and their services, and they can implement and provide their services to benefit the Library in a way that brings efficiencies and improves the speed and performance of the systems we have.”

Lee Edwards, British LibraryPhoto: Jon Ellis

“The British Library is very careful about where its data goes and then sharing its content. While I’m not saying we won’t post content on the cloud, we won’t only have it in the cloud”

Lee Edwards, British Library

According to the CTO, the Library has previously invested “quite heavily” in various infrastructure solutions, but it has not taken advantage of service offerings such as the cloud. The new IT strategy and willingness to change that, along with the planned adoption of products such as unified communications, shows a realisation that such approaches could add value and speed up the introduction of new services for the Library.

But Edwards does not think cloud has all the answers. He is wary about the advantages and limitations, and although he accepts that the cloud will be a key part of driving improvements in service delivery, he stresses that it is “not a one-stop shop or full solution”.

Adopting the cloud fully is not an option for the Library because of the amount of data it holds – the cost of moving data around is also a concern – which means existing datacentres will be maintained.

“I don’t want huge datacentres, but we have to retain content and the British Library is very careful about where its data goes and then sharing its content,” says Edwards. “While I am not saying we won’t post content on the cloud, we won’t only have it in the cloud.

“For us, I think the cloud is very good for the digital presence and online user access and search. But for preservation and long-term storage of content, it may be more of a hybrid cloud solution than a purely public cloud or private cloud solution.

“I suppose my view on this whole thing is there are frameworks and you do hear various buzzwords in the IT industry about what will be the best ways to manage IT. I have less time for frameworks and buzzwords and more time for taking the key parts and making them work.”

The British Library has not yet picked any specific suppliers to assist with the move of its large storage infrastructure to a service model, but the team is starting to engage with the market.

Enhancing scalability

The second priority for the IT function is to enhance the scalability of the organisation’s library management systems. These help the Library to catalogue, collect, ingest and preserve content – and as the volume of information increases, so does the strain on the workflow tools that manage it. 

The software needed can be split in two main areas. One is the library management system, a proprietary platform that is used for taking content in, archiving, storing and preserving it, and the other is the library cataloguing system. The latter system catalogues content once it has been collected and currently runs on a system provided by Ex Libris, although Edwards is also looking into alternatives.

“We are very good at collecting print and spent the past 10 years building and innovating the ability to collect digital content from web archives and e-books to digitised objects,” says Edwards. “But as we grow in scale, we can’t necessarily keep developing all those solutions ourselves.

“Both systems have worked well for us to date. But the massive growth in different types of digital content that we are collecting, with a lot more sound and video, images, digital maps, digital books and journals, means we need to evolve now. 

“There are strong, commercial, off-the-shelf packages and open-source solutions that we could look at that will help us increase our scalability and performance. It’s all about finding the right replacement for those two areas.”

One of the major programmes led by the British Library that builds on its ongoing digitisation efforts is Save our Sounds, which concentrates a wealth of sound material on the earliest recordings of ancient dialects, recordings on wax cylinders and LPs and different types of media. That material is degrading and the Library wants to keep recordings and all the historical and culturally significant information in some of its sound recordings.

The programme to digitise those recordings to make it available, searchable and accessible is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Mellon Foundation and others, plus partnerships with organisations such as the BBC.

As part of the programme, another goal is to collect new content and ensure that recordings and sounds that are being produced today in various forms are not lost. According to Edwards, this is about the collection of content such as interviews and conversations, and his team is looking at how a video archive can be set up to collect all the UK’s 700 channels of radio output around the clock, daily. 

“We’ve got to collect that content, get rid of the music recordings that we don’t collect and keep, say, an interview with Tony Blair or David Cameron from 2015 and make that available for research and cultural and other learning purposes,” says Edwards.

Improving the customer experience

The Library’s third priority is to enhance the customer journey. In this objective, the main goal is to deliver better search functionality and experience.

“At the old library, you used to have to come in and if you were a serious researcher, you might understand the workings of the catalogues and which catalogues to look in to find which information,” says Edwards. “The generations now, at whatever level, want data and to be able to consume it on the device of their choosing.

“They want to find it easily, without having to construct complicated search algorithms. And they want to have a consistent experience, whether they are moving from content we’ve got in our collection to content that’s on the web, to content that’s in other collections.”

The search technology currently in use at the Library is based on Primo and SFX products from Ex Libris. The IT team is also looking at the roadmap for its current tools and possible alternatives.

Read more about IT at the British Library

Edwards says the team will be considering the future of search – from data analytics to semantics and artificial intelligence – and what will improve the user experience, not only in terms of look and feel, but also depth of search, in a project that will last for the next three years.

“You are moving away from a pattern that is just purely based on, ‘I’m looking for an author. I’'m looking for a text-based search,’ to ‘How do you find a 10-minute clip in a radio talk show of an interview with Bill Clinton?’,” says Edwards.

“That requires a different type of searching and algorithm. And how do you find the right part of the video, as well as of a Shakespeare play that relates to a certain scene?

“We want to create the experience there, allow people to go and play if they like, use information in ways that we could never dream of.”

Boosting internal systems

The fourth priority in the strategy created by Edwards is to enhance the Library’s corporate systems. This will have to be done with a constantly decreasing amount of funding and conversely increasing demand as content grows continuously.

That means the Library has to find other ways to gain value from its content and also from the visitors who come to the physical venues, use coffee shops, attend events and buy items online. That also requires resilient corporate systems, particularly in e-commerce.

What's really good about working in IT here is the scale and breadth of what we're doing for an organisation this size is quite impressive
Lee Edwards, British Library

The British Library has recently redeveloped its website and introduced a new content management system (CMS) from Sitecore, an online shop based on an application by Ucommerce, and a new box office and membership platform based on TopTix. The payment and order fulfilment systems run on Oracle, but the team is also looking at possible replacement options.

“We also provide content on demand under licence that can be sold or licensed out,” says Edwards. “That helps to generate some revenue. They are not huge earners, but help to build some of the funding. And, importantly, they often help with our collection of content and our digitisation of content.”

The digitisation includes material such as Indian prints, Chinese ancient print scenes and Middle Eastern manuscripts, which can also be used by companies commercially. Another commercial offering supported by digitisation is Find My Past, which comprises 300 years of UK newspapers and helps users find out more about their heritage and family tree.

Another upcoming boost to revenue is a membership scheme, which will be launched this year, which also aims to get more people engaged with the content the Library offers.

Leadership challenges

As well as the typical challenges related to handling such a large transformation project, there are many expectations around the outcomes the IT strategy intends to generate.

According to Edwards, the complexity of the Library’s current architecture is one of hindrances to the business, but the planned simplification will turn that situation around and the first results will be seen within the next year.

“In about a year’s time, we expect to have progressed with some of the digitisation projects, especially on the Save our Sounds programme,” he says. “We would have done the first stages of ingesting and burning our sound content, getting it into our digital library system.

“We would be well under way, by this time next year, to completing dialogues with potential partners around the delivery of the underlying infrastructure and the delivery of the core library system. So I expect this time next year to be well under way with the market engagement because the year after that, we will be piloting and implementing the change in terms of technology.”

Choosing technology suppliers to support the transformation and grow the department, and gaining flexibility to scale up and down rather than creating a large permanent workforce, will also be among the most challenging aspects of Edwards’ job in the next few months.

“Finding the partners that can fill those gaps and can bring that depth of technology and experience and service, as well as that innovative thinking about how we can use those technologies, is going to be one of the main challenges,” he says.

“There are so many people out there and it’s easy enough to go out and tender for a cloud service on one thing or another, but finding the right ones that will work with the Library and fit within our purposes is going to be very important.”

Regardless of the complexity and scale of the projects coming up, Edwards says working within an information-led environment and creating ways of improving the collection, dissemination and access to that data, is one of the main attractions of the job.

“What is really good about working in IT here is the scale and breadth of what we’re doing for an organisation this size – it is quite impressive. And there is so much innovation that we can do and focus on and so many ideas that we haven’t got time to do yet. You don’t get bored.”

The six core business purposes of the British Library

The British Library’s business vision is supported by six core strategic purposes that drive its IT strategy. Chief technology officer Lee Edwards explains:

Custodianship: “This is about preserving content for the UK, its knowledge heritage. New legislation from 2013 allows the Library to start collecting digital content in addition to digital and printed publications – so the first key priority in that pillar is the collection and preservation in perpetuity of the nation’s knowledge heritage.”

Research: “We want to engage with the research community and allow access to print and digital content for research purposes, whether it’s for corporate data research or individuals researching something from PhDs to undergraduates to the general public.”

Learning: “Whether people are doing research for a business or educational purposes or whether they just want to learn and engage with history, people can access and use all the material that we have available in the Library in all the different areas and classifications.”

Business: “The intellectual property and patent knowledge and information that we have that can help entrepreneurs. They can take the content and the information that we have and use it in ways that drives value and possibly new commercial revenues for companies.”

Culture: “Here, the goal is promoting cultural experiences in the UK around the content that we have, providing cultural experiences in terms of engaging with content and putting on exhibitions around the country, loaning content out internationally, enhancing cultural learning, understanding and experience.”

International: “This is about our international engagement and working with other institutions, national libraries, university libraries, research libraries and other institutions to promote learning, to promote preservation of the physical and digital content and to promote knowledge and learning throughout.”

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