Sam Leith Sam Leith

Why didn’t the British Library pay a ransom to cyber attackers?

The British Library (Credit: Getty images)

‘They’ve turned one of our most important pieces of national infrastructure into an internet café,’ was how my friend Marcus, a scholar of early modern literature, put it to me, talking about the cyberattack that crashed the British Library at the end of last year. He’s not wrong. Since October, when a ransomware attack by the Rhysida criminal gang knocked all the library’s digital services offline, there really hasn’t been much more to the library’s Euston headquarters than a large airy building with a couple of expensive coffee shops.

The Integrated Catalogue, which is the means by which readers search the library’s vast collection and call books up from the stacks or down from its offsite storage in Boston Spa, has been offline for weeks. The same goes for the inter-library loans service and Public Lending Right (which administers the earnings authors get when their work is borrowed from lending libraries); as well as more specialist scholarly tools, such as the digitised versions of much of the library’s manuscripts collection and the English Short Title Catalogue, which is the most comprehensive index of pre-19th century printed materials in the language. 

The ransom asked was 20 Bitcoin: £600,000. That’s less than a tenth of what this debacle is going to cost the library alone

Put simply, that means academics (and popular historians, researching novelists, undergraduates, and anyone else whose work depends on access to our patrimony of written knowledge) have been completely jiggered since autumn last year. Books have ground to a halt. Research has been throttled. The commonwealth of knowledge has been shuttered. The relatively scant press coverage does not begin to give a sense of the scale of this catastrophe. As the library’s Chief Executive Sir Roly Keating put it in a blog last week, ‘for the past two months researchers who rely for their studies and in some cases their livelihoods on access to the Library’s collections have been deprived of it’. There’s no

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