LONDON. Michaelmas term nearly over. Implacable November weather predictably implacable. Forty-foot Megalosaurus presumably out there somewhere.
Readers may recognize a version here of the first lines of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. Dickens wrote Bleak House in 1852 and 1853, publishing it in 20 serial parts. As one did back in the day, he wrote Bleak House scratchily, noisily, using a goose quill pen, dipped at intervals into iron-gall ink, on cotton-rag paper. The material stuff that it took to write a novel such as Bleak House was very different from the stuff that writers use today.
Should you wish to read Dickens’s Bleak House manuscript (it’s close to illegible—I’ve tried), you can. You will find it safely on deposit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, bequeathed to the museum by the wife of Dickens’s friend and biographer, John Forster. Most of Dickens’s manuscripts are safely housed in the Victoria and Albert. And as far as we know, the Bleak House manuscript is exactly where it belongs: snug in its archival box on a shelf, somewhere in or near the museum’s sprawling brick campus in South Kensington. Library staff diligently ensure that the air around that box remains at the right levels of humidity and temperature; that the room that houses the box remains secure; and that appropriate protocols govern how and where readers can have access to the work.
What’s business as usual at the Victoria and Albert Museum is far from the case fewer than four miles away, at the United Kingdom’s national public repository, the British Library. At the British Library, hopeful would-be readers of the library’s prodigious catalogue of unique, rare, and contemporary materials are out of luck.
On Halloween, 2023, the British Library suffered a massive cyberattack, which rendered its web presence nonexistent, its collections access disabled, and even its wifi fried. Moreover, the cyberattack also swept the personal data of the British Library’s humans—its users, but, far more extensively, its staff—into the hands of an outside party. During the final week of November, images of the stolen data were presented for auction on the dark web, for sale to whoever’s willing to pay 20 bitcoin, or about £600,000. By making the library’s digital infrastructure into a commodity (in an open, albeit dark, market), a “ransomware gang” calling itself Rhysida hopes to pressure the British Library to pay up first.
For good reason, this theft makes me wax existential: What did those cyberterrorists steal, when they stole the library’s entire digital footprint? What is a library, anyway?
Zombie Apocalypse at the Library
What could be more insistently analog than research on fragile pieces of paper, handwritten by authors in centuries long past?
I am writing this from desk 1086 in the British Library’s Manuscripts Room, on a Thursday in late November 2023. I arrived here this morning to continue work on a truly remarkable manuscript: Works and Days, the diary of the distinguished late-Victorian poet “Michael Field.” In this manuscript, you see, there’s an open secret: “Michael Field” is a pseudonym for two writers, both women, and also longtime lovers. My work is part of a larger effort to reframe what we think about Victorian life, writing, poetry, art, women, sexualities, and even dogs (for Michael Field were truly idiosyncratic), when we open the canon to such epistemological extravaganzas as those on display in this nearly 10,000-page double-diary.
Typically, this work is exhilarating to me; but today, it is uncanny, unsettling. I am the only reader present in what’s typically a bustling space. The library’s readings rooms are now zombies. As public service announcements have brightly reported, the rooms are still open for “personal study.” That said, visitors cannot request, retrieve, or use materials (for the most part), from the library’s vast collections.
Those collections are safe nearby. Yet as far as the digital world is concerned, they… do not exist.
What does exist is the stuff: the library’s collections themselves; the building and its desks, chairs, book cradles; even the odd cone-shaped paper cups at the public water fountains. Also here are the humans who conduct the operational tasks of this massive institution: the same humans whose personal data are splayed out on dark eBay for purchase, to be put to use in ways I shudder to imagine.
Not much circulation, retrieval, and return is happening at all; but still, the people who work at the library’s circulation desks, and on tasks involving the retrieval and return of books for readers, are here. They sit quietly. The security staff at the main entrance, and those at the doors of the various reading rooms, are here as well, and quiet as well. The locker room familiar to any regular library user is all but deserted, yellow and green metal doors ajar like so many flags on a windy day.
Here in the Manuscripts Room, the space itself looks the same, but it does not sound the same; depopulated, it is oddly quiet. Loudly quiet! This quiet is completely different from the constant rustle of ambient noise that counts as what we could call “library quiet.” Today, the distinctive energy of the Manuscripts Room is nowhere to be found: on a typical day, staff and readers alike are focused, on the clock, working swiftly and deeply, using fragile materials that are, by definition, unique and irreplaceable. This distinctive energy is the product of a thrilling alchemy of two forms of raw materials: readers, and the works in their hands.
Absent readers, absent works, the reading room is just a room. The ghosts of all the Christmases are stuck in storage.
During the pandemic, I went for nearly two years between visits to the British Library—certainly the longest hiatus I’d taken since graduate school. In that space of time, I missed the library keenly, and I expressed to friends and family a wish that the British Library could bottle and sell its distinctive scent. It hits you like a wall when you walk in the door: coffee + cleaning products. I’d know it anywhere. I would travel far, and have, for a hit of the stimulus that gets the work started.
Make no mistake: the aroma was here this morning. I paused, as one does, in the lobby to draw it in, feeling my brain shift into readiness for the day at desk 1086. I think I was wrong about the scent, though. I may have been flown up here to 1086 on clouds of the sublime, but I landed with a thud. Absent the connection of reader and material, it turns out that the smell is just a smell. An amazing one, but not the important thing itself, library-wise.
So, what does remain of the library? Insofar as a library is a building, I can confirm that we have a building here. Books? Check. Though the British Library does not have open stacks, the reading rooms are ringed with books, including indexes and other reference volumes. Far flashier, the famous “King’s Library” stands stalwart at the building’s center, displaying the books collected by King George III, including a Gutenberg Bible and Caxton’s first edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Again, books present and accounted for, consecrated by modern architecture as the heart of this institution.
But what of its soul?
As a board member of our local public library, I can vouch that the soul of a library is something really complex. Certainly in the context of the United States right now, public libraries are hot potatoes of the culture wars, and public librarians the sentinels of foundational civil rights, including those of speech and accessibility. In practical terms, public libraries like ours are community anchors, providing resources to many different populations, from infants to elders. Too often, libraries patch gaps in the social safety net, providing shelter and survival resources, along with information resources, to underserved people. Librarians are by profession information wizards, belying any analog-digital binary by instrumentalizing information as useful and as necessary. The job is to connect users and materials, to create that alchemy that blends the stuff and matter of life with the ephemera of knowledge. Whether it’s a small-town public library or one of the world’s flagship research institutions, libraries represent a radically inclusive mission dedicated to knowledge.
That’s the bitter irony at the core of this cybercrime: what was stolen was access to knowledge. This morning, I fumbled around trying to explain the odd situation at the British Library to a staff member in my London hotel. No, the library is not closed. Yes, the books are still there. But library users have little to no access to the books. Why?
We’re past the days of card catalogs, alas: the modern library has long since converted to digital recordkeeping. What this means is that readers request books electronically, and the institution charts those books’ locations electronically, too. If I wanted to see what I had been working on last summer or a decade ago, I could look up my own user record to confirm. Well, I can’t do this right now, but researchers have taken this capacity for granted for a long time. If librarians wanted to see who’d laid hands on a certain volume of Michael Field’s diary, or on the manuscripts or earliest published work of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, the Brontës, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and so many more writers familiar today and others languishing, awaiting rediscovery, presumably they could, with a simple request within a digital file. Most importantly, if I wanted to request to see a specific book, I could look it up electronically, and then ask the librarians to find the physical copy. Until Halloween, 2023, that is.
How ironic that the most quaintly analog form of research possible, using physical books in a physical library, has been devastated by the hijacking of a digital system. I am experiencing this irony as especially bitter this morning, having arrived at desk 1086 with my list of tasks, hoping against hope that the crisis had resolved. It hadn’t. I hope it will someday soon.
But perhaps this is a useful reminder about what a library is, or isn’t, to any given stakeholder on any given day. For me, the library is one form of workplace; to scholars working with other kinds of materials, it’s other things. Yet we meet in the common ground of our work: we come here to read, to write, to think.
For the students who crowd and jam into the British Library’s public spaces, the library is another form of workplace: library with a capital “L,” perhaps; the place you go to learn, to sit in silence (or murmured sociability) thigh to thigh with others who have come to learn.
For its staff, though, the library is not a workplace; it is their workplace, the place of primary professional devotion. That this ransomware attack has resulted in the looting of staff members’ personal data makes it clear that the crime is far from victimless or a mere inconvenience. It has exposed the vulnerability of an institution and its people, all dedicated to providing the public with the basic human right to information.
Perhaps that’s the bitterest extreme of the irony: the sense in which the ransomware attack violates the very premise of libraries themselves. Libraries exist to connect learners with knowledge. Full stop. That’s what has been destroyed: not the stuff, but the connections, the fascia.
If there’s a moral to the story, it’s that any attempt to quantify the value of knowledge itself, in bitcoin or any other currency, will fail. Sadly, that does not mean that the ransomware gang will not get its price; that they may. But this is a useful, humbling reminder about the fragility of the institutions that connect us and protect us, and the importance of the work they make possible.
—British Library, November 30, 2023