Everything Forever: 10 years of non-print legal deposit (NPLD)

‘We must learn from the pitfalls of the past and collect NPLD without scrutiny'

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.

From Thomas James, Bodley’s Librarian, signing the first agreement with the Stationers Company of London in 1610, through to the evolution of physical collecting to non-print legal deposit in 2013, we have played a key role in securing long-term access to our nation’s published archives.

While the bulk of this relationship has seen the libraries working to protect authors perspectives and experiences from censorship and destruction, the relationship has not always benefited the quality of our collections. 

In fact, at times, we have quite simply got it wrong – very wrong. Looking back through a 21st-century lens, it is baffling to think that we would have ever questioned the value of female authors’ contributions to literature, or believed for a second that we did not need Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility on our shelves. But we did. As evidenced by so many moments in history, from the era of superstition, to scientific racism and witch-hunt culture, we humans make mistakes. People are driven both by emotion and by the dominant cultural and social perspectives of any given time. As a result, what we believe to be the right course of action at one moment in time can, quite literally overnight, become a negative that is questioned, regretted, and abhorred in the future. 

It is impossible to predict the value or importance of knowledge at any given point in the future, which is why it is so important to learn from the lessons of the past and collect as broadly as possible within legal deposit collecting. 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 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. 

The best way to honour 10 years of non-print legal deposit is to avoid the pitfalls of past mistakes and collect as broadly as possible. Everything that is published will not always be useful all of the time, but there will be periods in the future when it could be of great interest and importance. And this ‘could’ is the reason legal deposit collections exist at all. In the past we have not always proven to be full-proof in predicting what will hold value in the future, and when we act today, we must remember we are acting for the future, just as Sir Thomas Bodley and the Company of Stationers did more than four centuries ago.


Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian and Head of Gardens, Libraries and Museums at the University of Oxford