NLW Digitisation Proposals
The National Library of Wales and Writers’ Copyright
It seems likely that Andrew Green, Librarian of the National Library of Wales, would be surprised to receive the following letter.
Dear Mr Green,
You may have heard of my recent appointment to the Court of Governors of the National Library of Wales. I am writing to congratulate you on the ‘Welsh Journals Online’ project. Not only is it a magnificent addition to Wales’s cultural life, it also provides the Library with a bold model for future working practice. From next year, librarians at the NLW will not be paid. (Ancillary staff will continue on their present contracts.) The Council hopes that most librarians, including yourself, will be prepared to work for nothing, although it will respect the wishes of those who decline.
Though surprising, such a letter would follow the example set by the NLW itself with the Welsh Journals Online project. Not having consulted creative writers (or bodies such as Academi or the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society that represent their interests), it now asks them to allow their work to be used for free. Attempts to bypass the rights of the producers of creative material are fairly common. Most cities have their back-street sellers of dodgy DVDs. One does not expect, though, to find the National Library of Wales joining them on the pavement.
Ignoring a basic rule of copyright - permission must be obtained before use - has resulted in Google being taken to court by the Association of American Publishers. (The NLW has taken out insurance against future claims: as a copyright library, it will be aware of the principles involved.) The Library consulted magazine publishers about how it should proceed with the project. Copyright to an individual piece of work, though, remains with the writer; it is not in the gift of the publisher.
Writing is work. Civilised societies create ways to reward people for their work. One of the project’s implicit conditions is that Welsh writers relegate themselves to the status of amateurs. However, there may be other longer-term consequences of not challenging the Library’s present assumptions and practice. This particular project is part of a larger scheme: ‘The Theatre of Memory’, according to Andrew Green, aims “to convert the whole of Wales’s printed heritage (books, periodicals, newspapers, etc.) into digital form, and hence create the first truly online country in the world.”
The poetry and prose of its writers are as much a part of Wales’s national identity as its water and coal. It is disturbing that, at a time when the country is consolidating newly-won political power, a major institution should set out to strip-mine Welsh literary culture. So far, over 60 writers have publicly protested against the lack of payment and have refused the Library permission to digitise their work; others are doing so privately. One magazine has declined to be part of the project; another feels the matter has not been properly discussed and is deferring its decision; another will only allow the use of material more than five years old. The Library does not seem to have fully considered the implications of its approach: one that, at present, undermines writers’ professional status. However, if that approach was rethought – and writers paid for their work –the Welsh Journals Online project could be warmly welcomed as a vital addition to our cultural life.