The vast entrance hall of the British Library is packed with visitors, some hunched over laptops, others queueing to buy tickets to the fantasy literature exhibition and jostling for coffee.

The only sign something is amiss are the shelves behind the librarians in the 11 hushed reading rooms, where books are piled with paper slips hanging out of them like tongues.

Almost three months after a significant cyber attack crippled the British Library’s online systems, its digital booking process remains out of use. As of last week, visitors can once again search the core catalogue of more than 36mn records of rare books, journals, maps and music scores. But to borrow them they must return to the archaic system of makeshift paper tags.

Seeing the books stack up is galling for Roly Keating, whose priority during 11 years as chief executive has been to move the British Library from a largely paper-based resource focused on academic study to a cutting edge source of digital research.

The cyber attack dealt a huge blow to these efforts, rendering most of the library’s online services inaccessible. The gang behind the raid, a group called Rhysida that has focused on attacking vital infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and government agencies, snatched employee and customer data and posted hundreds of thousands of stolen files online. Staff were temporarily prevented from accessing emails, hundreds of researchers, writers and students were unable to do the work they wanted.

Keating, a softly spoken former senior BBC executive, maintains a sense of calm as he explains how this British institution is dealing with one of the biggest crises in its 50-year history, although he admits a “degree of upset, of anger”.

“Then and now I am thinking about our users and particularly the readers and researchers whose studies and . . . work depend on being able to access the books we have,” he says in an interview. “We are really sorry they have been disrupted.”

The chief executive was awoken to the news of the attack by a text from his IT head on the last Saturday morning in October.

“You have to concentrate first of all,” he says. “Of course there are feelings, but job number one is to think straight.”

Minutes after that first text, Keating was chairing an emergency meeting with library executives and the security team, on his mobile phone.

“This was a situation we had thought about, we had rehearsed. Every CEO, not just in our sector, thinks about this and in some senses dreads that call.”

One of the first decisions was not to pay the ransom demand of £600,000. “It is just basic practice that you don’t pay money to criminal blackmailers,” Keating says. “It was important for us to articulate choices, to set a tone.”

The British Library is now expected to spend up to 10 times the ransom amount rebuilding most of its digital services — by reinstalling applications and restoring back-ups, for example — at an estimated cost of £6mn-£7mn (Keating himself is circumspect but admits it will be millions). The process will consume a sizeable proportion of its £16.4mn in unallocated reserves.

The library restored access to the majority of the physical books, archives, maps and manuscripts held in the basement of its London site on January 15. The availability of some archival and manuscript material is still restricted.

“The broader programme of [a] full technical rebuild and recovery from the attack will take time” says Keating. Restoring content held at the Library’s Boston Spa site in Yorkshire is among the “key future milestones”, he adds without providing a timeframe.

But the chief executive takes a glass half full approach, noting that some of the recovery cost will be subsumed into work already funded through its broader digitisation programme, which will upgrade core systems and platforms.

Already during Keating’s time in charge, more than 11.3mn of the 170mn items in the library’s collection have been archived online. He plans to eventually archive every item.

The resource has helped the institution cope with the difficulties faced by public libraries globally, such as government funding cuts and declining usage, as well as the increasing threat of cyber attacks. Hundreds of sites have closed in the past decade.

But the queue of daily readers snaking to the entrance of the British Library before the ransomware attack had grown so long it had become a social media sensation. The throng remains — visitors are clearly undeterred by the current logistical problems and the fact that until Christmas, the British Library was officially a crime scene.

“The more we digitise the collection, the longer the queue outside to get in,” says Keating.

The British Library gained its status as the UK’s national library through an act of parliament in the early 1970s. It receives its funding from central government, rather than financially stretched local authorities, making it less vulnerable to funding cuts than local libraries, although not immune. One way it can help itself, Keating says, is to “make and promote the idea of the library as a resource for all — on a scale that others cannot”.

Before October another focus for him was building a support hub for entrepreneurs.

The library, located in London’s “knowledge quarter” alongside biomedical research institutes and Google’s UK headquarters, houses the Alan Turing Institute, a UK centre for data science and artificial intelligence. It has also created a nationwide network of 22 “business and IP centres” that provide start-up support services to help budding founders. The resources have provided 18,175 start-ups with support on business plan writing and financial planning.

Keating says such partnerships make the core operation more resilient to operational shocks. “BIPC has continued unabated thanks in part to this spirit of collaboration”.

Spreading the digitised collection across sites including the national libraries of Scotland and Wales and universities, also made it harder for the hackers to do more damage, he says. There was “resilience baked in”.

Keating credits his teams in London and Yorkshire, where about 70 per cent of the library’s collection is held. “One of the great things about the library is the calm professionalism of people around the organisation,” he says, adding that his colleagues are “some of the most inventive, creative, brilliant people in the knowledge sector”.

“There is a real dynamism to support each other and make the case for each other about what libraries can be and do.”

He says that his professional “comfort zone” is nurturing diverse groups to co-operate — something he attributes to TV experience.

“I like the energy that is released in a room when you get talented people from sometimes very different backgrounds or areas of expertise to come together over a shared set of values.”

Still, when Keating accepted the role he says he was questioned by peers who were perplexed as to why he would move from digital experiments at the BBC to the nation’s collection of books.

“When it was first announced that I was taking on this job there might have been some of my techie friends who may have said to me why on earth are you doing that — surely we have search engines now, what on earth could you need a library for. They were wrong.”

The greater reach provided by digitising the Library’s collection is crucial to developing commercial propositions for the institution, he adds. “I suppose what I did was encode that business purpose into the heart [of the British Library] and give it a strength and weight.”

The latest accounts show 11 per cent of British Library revenue in 2022-23 came from commercial operations and 9 per cent from donors. Keating has been closely involved in fundraising to expand business support initiatives, securing support in recent years from Barclays, Santander and JPMorganChase and the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

“We didn’t have a secure business model,” he says. “We had to constantly fundraise to help it grow because it is not widely understood that libraries have a role like this. But it felt natural for us.”

Despite the recent events, the chief executive remains upbeat.

“It has been a sobering couple of months, but I don’t think that negates the pride that many people have about working here. There is a strength and resilience to see us through crises when they hit,” he says.

“Big as this attack has been, it will take its place as part of a long history of this place and hopefully will result in strengthening this major British institution.”

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