THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

09 February 2018

Introducing Doctoral Students to the Asian and African Collections at the British Library

Curators of the Asian and African Collections recently welcomed 45 eager doctoral students to a training day at the British Library. The session, for students in the first year of their PhDs, provided an introduction to the research materials on offer at the BL. Students came from universities throughout the UK, including Glasgow, Strathclyde and Newcastle.

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On display at the doctoral open day: (left) Ganjifa card set featuring the avatars of Vishnu from 19th-century Orissa, India (BL Or 13,692); (right) illustration of animals, probably for a board game. Commissioned by Richard Johnson, Lucknow, c. 1780-82 (BL Johnson Album 5,9)

We know that our vast and wide-ranging collections may be a little daunting when starting out on research. The annual doctoral open day aims to give students an understanding of the overall picture, as well as helping them to start navigating the collections in the best way for their own research.

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(Left) a comic from the British Library’s Arabic collections: Skefkef, issue 3, published in Morocco; (right) section of Qur’an board, probably from Somalia, used for learning the Qur’an (BL Or. 16442)

The day began with a talk on research at the British Library, and an overview of the Asian and African Collections ­from the Head of Department, Dr Luisa Mengoni. Curators then gave introductions to our holdings on and from:

There were also presentations on the India Office Records and from our Digital Research team. The British Library’s materials are in many formats – books, serials, newspapers, electronic resources, manuscripts and archives, maps, audio-visual items and philatelic material. The Asian and African Collections have material in all the major languages of Asia and Africa, and in many less widely spoken languages too.

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A wide range of exhibits on display at the doctoral open day

After this glimpse of what’s available, students received practical help in using the catalogues as well as an opportunity to see displays of richly illuminated manuscripts, books, and other treasures from our collections. There was plenty of time to interact with curators and gain advice on individual research projects.

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The Turkish and Turkic stand

The afternoon finished with a talk by Dr Richard Williams, Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London, who shared his experiences of using the British Library’s collections and provided plentiful tips for life after the PhD.

The day brought together students with a huge range of research interests, from women’s translations of the Qur’an to the medical history of refugee camps, and provided opportunities to get to know other doctoral researchers in similar or different disciplines.

95% of those completing feedback forms rated the day ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’. Most important, students’ confidence in their ability to do their research at the BL vastly increased. The proportion of those ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ in using our collections rose from 27% beforehand to 100% at the end of the day. ‘Very useful & good day,’ one student commented. ‘Staff were very helpful and approachable.’

What next? The next Asian and African doctoral open day will be held early in 2019, for students starting their PhDs in autumn 2018.

In the meantime, current PhD students are invited to apply for a range of 3-month PhD research placements at the British Library.

These projects include:

The closing date for applications is 19 February 2018.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, African Collections, with thanks to colleagues for the wide range of photographs
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