An apparent cyberattack hushes the British Library

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An apparent cyberattack hushes the British Library
The British Library in London, which has a collection of about 170 million items, Nov. 29, 2019. The library was hit by what it is calling a “cyber incident,” and ever since, its website has been down, scholars have been unable to access its online catalog, its Wi-Fi has stopped working, and staff members haven’t been allowed to turn on their computers. (Andy Haslam/The New York Times)

by Alex Marshall

LONDON.- The British Library in London is normally a place of quiet study, its reading rooms filled with authors, academics and students often surrounded by piles of books from the library’s collection of about 170 million items.

Now, it’s been shushed almost entirely.

On Saturday, the library was hit by what it is calling a “cyber incident.” Ever since, its website has been down and scholars have been unable to access its online catalog. The library’s Wi-Fi has also stopped working, and staff members haven’t been allowed to turn on their computers. Its gift shop is open for business, but only for anyone with cash to buy trinkets such as British Library-branded pencils.

Library users, many of whom include writers with pressing deadlines, are beginning to be affected.

In interviews this week, seven regular users of the library — including the author of a forthcoming book on classical music, a University of Cambridge lecturer, two postgraduate students and a Shakespearean scholar — said that the library had essentially gone back to a predigital age.

Now, according to a staff member in the library’s “rare books and music” reading room, ordering a book involves looking up its catalog number in one of several hundred hardback books or an external website, writing that number onto a slip of paper and then handing it to a librarian who, in turn, would check their records to see whether the book was available. Books are only available if they are stored at the main library location.

Any incident at the British Library tends to be high-profile news in Britain. Its collection includes artifacts such as two copies of the Magna Carta, one of King Henry VIII’s personal Bibles, five copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio and some of the Beatles’ handwritten lyrics.

Yet the British Library has issued only brief comments about the episode on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. On Tuesday, it posted a statement saying that the library was “experiencing a major technology outage as a result of a cyber incident. This is affecting our website, online systems and services, and some on-site services including public Wi-Fi.”

The statement added that the library’s staff was investigating the incident along with Britain’s National Cyber Security Center.

On Friday, a library spokesperson said in an email that she could not provide further comment. She did not respond to questions on whether an attack had actually occurred.

Jessica Boyall, 29, who was in the library on Thursday to research a doctoral study, said that she had speculated with fellow users about what might have caused the shutdown. “Nothing like this ever happens here,” she said, adding. “Everyone’s got rumors.”

In the meantime, she had changed her work plan for the week. “I’m trying to do the bits that don’t require any books,” she said.

Even with the dearth of information, other libraries in Europe were assuming that the British Library had been the victim of a deliberate attack. A spokesperson for the National Library of Scotland said in an email that “following the attack on the British Library,” it was strengthening the “ongoing monitoring and protection of our services and collections.”

This would not be the first time a library has faced a cyber incident. This year, cybercriminals targeted Germany’s National Library, although its director general, Frank Scholze, said in a telephone interview on Friday that his staff had been able to “fend it off.”

“Libraries have not really been targets before — we’re a little bit under the radar,” Scholze said. “But this seems to be changing.”

Tasmina Islam, a lecturer in cybersecurity education at King’s College London said in an email that the motivation for attacking a library could be financial.

“Cybercriminals can access a lot of information from a library, including users’ personal data,” she said. Libraries also “store electronic books, research articles and various intellectual properties, all of which cybercriminals can exploit for illegal distribution,” Islam added.

The British Library incident “served as a warning for other libraries and institutions to assess their own security measures thoroughly,” she said.

At the library this week, one staff member described the event as “a nightmare” and said that employees were bemused as to what had happened and why.

Not all library users seemed bothered by the interruption.

Eric Langley, a Shakespeare scholar at University College London, said he had found the blackout “peculiarly liberating.” On a typical visit, he said, he would spend the day with centuries-old English books from the library’s collections, while looking at others on his laptop.

This week, he said, that had been impossible, so he’d just been reading the bard’s work.

“It’s just me and Shakespeare for a few days,” he said, with a blissful smile. Although, he added, “if it carried on much longer, I’d be in trouble.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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