Knowledge Matters blog

10 January 2024

Restoring our services – an update

Three people stand in front of the King's Library. Photo by Sam Lane Photography
As we begin a new year, I'm pleased to confirm that – as promised before Christmas – next Monday 15 January will see the return online of one of the most important datasets for researchers around the world: the main British Library catalogue, including details of our printed books, journals, maps, music scores and rare books. Its absence from the internet has been perhaps the single most visible impact of the criminal cyber attack which took place at the end of October last year, and I want to acknowledge how difficult this has been for all our users.

When the catalogue returns it won’t be in quite the form that long-standing users will be familiar with. Most notably it will be 'read-only', so although you will be able to search for items as before, the process for checking availability and ordering them for to use in the Reading Rooms will be different. We’ll be providing more detailed information and practical guidance when the catalogue goes online on Monday.

In addition I can confirm that from next week we will also be able to provide our readers with access to the majority of the Library's key special collections – the archives, manuscripts and other unique items that are only available here. For the time being you’ll need to come on-site to consult offline versions of the specialist catalogues, but our reference teams will be on hand to help you with searching for and requesting items.

Taken together these developments mean that for the first time since the attack the majority of physical books, archives, maps and manuscripts held in the basements at our St Pancras site will once again be discoverable and useable by our Readers. Although the processes may be slower and more manual than we’ve all been used to, this is the familiar heart of the Library’s offering to researchers and restores a core element of our public service. It will be good to have it back.

Further stages of recovery

Positive as this news is it’s important to stress that there are many further steps ahead. The broader programme of full technical rebuild and recovery from the attack will take time, and we’re keen to listen to our users and the wider research community to ensure we get the priorities right in the months ahead. Some key future milestones, which we will report on in due course, include restoring access to the full range of content held at our Boston Spa site, and also to those parts of our digital collections that are currently unavailable.

Learning lessons for the future

It’s also important, as we enter this crucial new phase of recovery, to say that we are sorry that for the past two months researchers who rely for their studies and in some cases their livelihoods on access to the Library’s collections have been deprived of it. And we are sorry that for all our efforts we were not able to protect some personal data belonging to our users and our staff from being leaked by these hackers.

It has been a sobering couple of months for all of us at the British Library, and we’re determined that others benefit from the experience we have been through. As I said in my previous blog, what happened to us in October has implications for the whole collections sector, and in the months ahead we will begin to share the lessons we’ve learned from this experience with our partners and peer institutions.

We’re also determined that we learn those lessons ourselves, and use this as a moment not just to replicate the systems we ran before, but to improve as we rebuild. At the time the hackers hit we were embarking on a significant round of fresh investment in our core technology infrastructure, as part of the Knowledge Matters strategy we launched last May. That work will now be accelerated, to ensure that what emerges from this unwanted attack is a strengthened British Library that is as ready as it can possibly be to confront whatever future threats emerge from the constantly evolving world of cyber crime.

Other matters and next steps

Another vital part of the Library’s service is the annual provision of payments to authors and other recipients of UK Public Lending Right (PLR). We understand the vital importance of these payments to those who depend upon them, and many will have been understandably anxious since the cyber attack about the impact on this year’s process. I hope that many of those affected will have seen the message the PLR team published last week, giving reassurance that workaround systems are being put in place to ensure that this year’s payments will be made by, at the latest, the statutory deadline at end of March. A detailed timeline will issued by the end of this month, once this year’s Rate Per Loan has been laid in Parliament.

Full recovery of all our services will be a gradual process, but I hope that from next week onwards those users who have been most severely impacted will start to see real progress, and will continue to see improvements going forward. Recent press speculation about the possible cost of the recovery programme was premature as we have yet to confirm what the full costs will be. We remain in close and regular contact with our government sponsor, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and will work with them to ensure that our recovery takes place on a secure and financially sustainable basis.

In the meantime more detail about the interim catalogue and the manual requesting process will be shared on our website when the catalogue goes live next week. Future progress on restoring access will be announced via our social media channels and our website at bl.uk.

Once again I’d like to thank our community of users, partners and supporters for the patience and support you have shown so far. I also want to thank the many colleagues who have been working hard over recent weeks to make all of these latest developments possible. We will continue to keep you informed about our recovery programme as further milestones are confirmed and implemented.

Sir Roly Keating
Chief Executive

This blog was amended on 15 January to remove an incorrect number.

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