How to get Information from the British Library under FOI

Dictated and scraped in to Arcturus

This post will illustrate how the wonderful website can be used to liberate information from public bodies by invoking the freedom of information act (FOI). If an individual tries to find information from a body under the act thing you to do quite a lot of work beforehand in finding out what the rules are, who had to write to, and what they can expect. Moreover the reply will normally be directed to them and it will not be easy to share it with the general public for fear of breaching confidentiality or copyright whether real or imagined. makes it extremely easy to submit a request to the correct person or organisation and also to publish the whole process to the world thus making it clear what the substance of the reply is at reducing the need for anybody to ask the same question independently. Here is a question that I submitted to the British library asking about their policy on charging for open access materials, especially articles in scholarly publications. A naive reader might assume that if you can get information on the web for three and the British library it would not charge you for it but that is not how the British library works. Peter Suber, the great open access champion and chronicler, admitted that he could not understand in full the logic of that the old policy on charging for open access. If you want to see if you can do better then my FO I request has revealed their reply.

You can follow through my steps. If you go to the site you can search for “British library” and find that there have been 7 requests:

This is a useful tutorial on FOI and what do they The organisation to which the request has been made must reply within 20 working days, and the BL has acted perfectly properly in meeting the deadlines in all these cases. The organisation can give information, can ask for an extension of the deadline, can assert that it does not hold the information, or can make a case that it would be too expensive or too complicated to provide information. starts a clock ticking when the request is made which alerts the requester and the whole of the world when the response is overdue.

You can see the history of my request under

I shall copy small amounts:

PMR: I believe that when the British Library makes Open Access
publications available to its readers it applies charges even
though the original material is available on the Web without
charge. I also understand that it applies copyright restrictions
forbidding re-use even when the original source explicitly permits
re-use through CC-BY and similar licences

Please can you describe precisely the charging policy, access
policy , and re-use policy for Open Access documents held or
distributed by the BL. If the policy is less Open than the original
source please explain the rationale and what happens to any charges
levied on the reader.

And the substantive reply (which of course is in PDF and intractable and beyond the ability of WDTK to turn into HTML). I have done my best:

For readers unable to visit the reading rooms, the Library also operates a range of remote services. The key public irnetqeurifraecse r feogri tsthrea stiuopnp alny do fp caoypmieenst o fo fa rrteilcelve ainst B cLh aDirrgeecst ,a an dw eofbf-ebras stehde cseornvviecnei tehnacte of an aggregated service.

This is what happens from cut and paste from my default PDF reader embedded in Firefox. I am guessing that this is not an accessible document (i.e. could not be read to an unsighted human or machine without paying money to Adobe). Again I would be grateful for librarians or anyone else to give better information. Dictation gives:

For readers unable to visit the reading rooms, the Library also operates a range of remote services. The key public interface for the supply of copies of article [sic] is BL Direct, a web- based service that requires registration and payment of relevant charges and offers the convenience of an aggregated service.

I shall not dictate the rest of the letter, and urge those interested in why the BL charges for open access material to read the document. I have marked as they reply as successful, not because I agree with the content but because the content is sufficiently substantial is that I can then take this up with the others. I shall however question their policy on accessibility and do this for the freedom of information act.


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