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British Library plans archive for film and sound

Britain could have its first national archives for electronically published material, film and sound by 2000 if proposals being finalised by the British Library are adopted by the government.

The plans being drawn up by a working party will propose that the legal deposit system, requiring publishers by law to send copies of all printed material to the British Library, is widened to include electronic publishing, film and sound.

It will be presented to the Department of National Heritage later this year. If the Government approves the proposal, the national archives could up and running by the end of the millennium.

The move would allow Britain to establish its first comprehensive sound archive - holding everything from Take That's latest CD to obscure recordings of Oxford choirs - and create the first full British film collection, plugging a long-identified need.

Equally important, the extension would allow Britain to start an archive of material published electronically on CD-rom, microfiche, laser discs and, where possible, on-line - available by telephone or cable.

Gaps are already developing in the British Library's holding, as material which used to be printed is increasingly produced only in electronic form.

The plans have been drafted by a British Library working party which includes a representative of the other five copyright libraries in Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin, Scotland and Wales.

The scheme is being overseen by the British Library chairman, Sir Anthony Kenny, who told the Independent that unless the system was overhauled, the British Library would become marginalised.

He warned: "The third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary [due in 2005] will almost certainly appear only in electronic form. Unless the legislation is extended to electronic publication, the copyright privilege is going to become very much nullified."

The British Library proposals are not thought to require huge financial outlay on the part of the Government.

The material would be supplied by the record and film companies and publishers, with the main costs likely to be in technology and staff. An application would be made to the Millennium Commission to pay for some of the start-up costs for the electronic archive.

Sir Anthony is hoping this would be managed by the British Library, while the British Film Institute and the National Sound Archive would be the likely homes for film and sound material.

What will be less easy to decide will be the criteria for inclusion of material. While the general principle will be that it should originate in Britain, it remains unclear whether work produced by British people abroad would be included, for example, orwhen work by Britons and foreigners is "British".

Another concern is that the electronic publishing industry will oppose the proposals because they want to avoid making their commercially valuable software available for free.

Sir Anthony admitted: "The most important thing will be to persuade the publishers that it is a good idea.

"We feel that if it is presented carefully enough, and the conditions of access are worked out, they won't be deprived of legitimate profit."

Ray Templeton, the director of information services at the Library Association, welcomed the scheme. "We believe there is an urgent requirement for the legal deposit system to be extended," he said.