Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

06 April 2023

Everything Forever – marking 10 years of digital legal deposit

This month we are celebrating 10 years since a change in law, which made possible the preservation of published digital communications in the UK. Since April 2013, the British Library, as one of six legal deposit libraries for the UK, has been building a huge collection of newly published digital books, journal articles, archived web and other types of publication, many of which would otherwise have been at risk of loss. These are available for research and inspiration at the British Library, and other legal deposit library sites across the UK and Ireland.


Our collecting of ‘born digital’ UK publications is the newest part of our legal deposit mandate to collect as comprehensively as we can, and represent the breadth of experience, culture, society, science and politics in the UK. Legal deposit has existed for nearly 400 years, and is a responsibility on publishers in the UK and Ireland to make sure that copies of their publications are available at the British Library and the five other legal deposit libraries for the UK.

These libraries are the National Library of Scotland, National Library of Wales, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Cambridge University Library and the Library of Trinity College Dublin. The long history and inclusive aim of legal deposit means that you are able to access a huge and detailed collection of publications on all aspects of life from across the UK. For example, local newspapers (many of which are now available from our British Newspaper Archive); maps that can be used to research our changing landscapes; information about businesses; and government and official publications that document in detail social change and the growth of government and law. Legal deposit is a huge collaborative undertaking between the libraries. It relies on close relationships with publishers.

Collecting born digital publications

The change in law, which came into effect on 6 April 2013, meant that digital publications could also be collected under legal deposit. For many years previously, we had emphasised the preservation risks, especially for material that exists only in digital form. We were also aware of the great value of collecting and making available born digital publications. For example, it will not be possible to study the 21st century without reference to communications that took place on the web.

Collecting, and making available, digital publications at a scale required by legal deposit, is a huge challenge. Working in close partnership, the six legal deposit libraries have had to develop whole new systems to identify, collect, preserve, describe and make available digital journal articles, books, maps, sheet music and official publications. This change has involved the creation of new types of collection, for example the UK Web Archive, or our experimental work in collecting new types of digital publication that are designed for mobile technology or user interaction.

In making this transformation, we have worked with publishers, their representatives and also other organisations working in book and journal distribution. This has been important as standardisation, for example of metadata and the structure of files for deposit, has a very big impact on whether and how far we can ensure that our processes work at the very large scale that they need to.


A vast and rich resource

We have achieved a lot over the past 10 years. Under digital legal deposit, we have collected more than 10 million journal articles and nearly 800,000 books. We make available 3 TB of digital mapping, including annual snapshots of Ordnance Survey large-scale mapping of Britain. The UK Web Archive is now one of the largest parts of our collection, containing millions of websites, billions of files and 1.3 PB (petabytes) of data. All this information is available to access at legal deposit libraries, and is preserved across the legal deposit library network.

These achievements matter because the web and other digital publications are often at risk of rapid change or loss. The digital archive that we are building holds in many cases the only surviving copy of millions of pages of digital content. These relate to events and subjects of great interest to current and future researchers. For example, our event-based collections in the UK Web Archive include general elections and referenda, international sporting events, and public health communication during the pandemic. These are available for use by researchers now and will be preserved for the future.

Over the past ten years, we have been able to learn more about the challenges of managing digital publications at this scale, and this includes access to publications. The law that requires deposit of digital publications also describes the terms under which those publications may be accessed.

This is important for enabling use in a way that reassures publishers of our commitment to protecting intellectual property. However, restrictions on access can be unexpected for readers and sometimes don’t take into account the ways in which authors and publishers intended their work to be shared (for example, using Open Access). Issues relating to access were a focus of Digital Library Futures, an important research project, led by the University of East Anglia, into the impacts of digital legal deposit on libraries and researchers.       

The changing landscape

At the same time, we have experienced radical changes in technology that have impacted on many areas of publishing and publisher behaviour. The publishing ecology in the UK and Ireland is rich and varied. It includes some of the best known and loved publishers in the world, and extends through a very ‘long tail’ of independent and self publishing.

Print on demand, crowdfunding platforms and a breath-taking number of book, zine and comics fairs across the UK and Ireland mean that the challenge of finding out about publications has become much more complex. Also, writers and artists are using technology in creative and innovative ways, making beautiful and engaging new publications that we need to learn how to collect and preserve. We will be showing some of these in our Digital Storytelling exhibition, opening on 2 June 2023.

A new framework for collecting

An anniversary is a time for celebration and for reflection. For our 10th anniversary year, we have reviewed our priorities and values for how we develop legal deposit. These have recently been published in our Framework for Legal Deposit. This will shape our activity to 2030, and restates our commitments to sustainability, preservation and putting users at the heart of our planning around access.

We know that we have more work to do in improving the experience of using digital legal deposit, including our support for Open Access and for accessibility. We also know that we need to ensure that our collecting reflects the diversity of publishing, and voices represented, across the UK. This includes works published in new formats. We are able to reflect on how print and digital publishing is interconnected, and that authors, publishers and readers all make positive choices about the formats in which ideas are communicated.

Meeting these needs in a way that is realistic about the resources we have, and responsible about long term sustainability, is a challenge. Our partnership across the six legal deposit libraries, and the relationship that we have with publishers, are an important part of meeting that challenge.    

Ian Cooke

Head of Contemporary British and Irish Published Collections