Everything Forever: Legal deposit libraries of UK and Ireland celebrate 10th anniversary of digital collecting

  • 10 years ago, the six legal deposit libraries of the UK and Ireland gained the right to receive a copy of every UK electronic publication, on the same basis as they have received print publications such as books, magazines and newspapers for several centuries.
  • Digital collecting enables the libraries to collect non-print publications, including websites, e-books, and online journals, creating an unprecedented collection of digital and online publishing that captures the contemporary experience of living in the UK and Ireland
  • Electronic legal deposit has also transformed the volume of material held by the UK Web Archive, which collects millions of websites each year, preserving the UK’s digital heritage for future generations before content is deleted, replaced or becomes inaccessible. 

In 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, we have collected more than 10 million journal articles and nearly 800,000 books. We 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;

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:

As the first library of legal deposit in the British Isles, the Bodleian Libraries has the longest connection to these national collections of any of the libraries, and therefore has a unique perspective on how they can be shaped in the years to come.

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.

Notes to Editor 

About legal deposit libraries

There are six legal deposit libraries across the UK and Ireland. They are:

  • The British Library
  • National Library of Scotland
  • National Library of Wales
  • Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
  • Cambridge University Library
  • The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The legal deposit libraries work together to ensure the long-term preservation of UK publications, both in print and digital form. They ensure that publications are held securely and that they can be discovered and accessed by readers.