Living Knowledge blog

4 posts from March 2016

24 March 2016

British Library Shakespeare playbills…on tour!

This week the BBC launched Shakespeare on Tour, a new website sharing hundreds of stories about Shakespeare performances in every corner of England spanning over four centuries . Around half of the stories are sourced from the British Library’s enormous collection of theatre playbills, which have been the subject of my PhD research for the past two and half years.

A collection of playbills from miscellaneous Newcastle-upon-Tyne theatres 1791-1855, image courtesy of the British Library

The Library’s collection of playbills is one of the biggest in the world – there are over 200,000 individual playbills mostly dating from the late-18th to the late-19th centuries designed to entice theatre-goers to performances in their local area. A significant proportion of the playbills advertise performances of William Shakespeare plays, which is testament to how popular his works were with theatre companies during this period.

When I first started research for my PhD, which is a collaborative doctoral placement run between the University of Nottingham and the British Library, I was taken down to the Library’s vast basements in St Pancras to see the collection as a whole, and was somewhat daunted by the sight that greeted me: row upon row of oversize red volumes, each containing hundreds and hundreds of playbills.


One of the British Library's volume of theatre playbills, image courtesy of the British Library

Many of them are extremely fragile, since playbills were intended to be thrown away soon after a production was completed, and it is only thanks to a few major collectors we have them in the national collections today. Gradually, as I worked my way through these volumes, I became more familiar with these documents and the theatrical culture to which they belonged. I began to notice unusual or quirky productions, and at times got slightly side-tracked attempting to track down further information about performers that had captured my imagination.

One of my favourite stories was that of a child performer known as the ‘Infant Kean’. A playbill from 1830 documents his performance at Nottingham Theatre in the role of Macbeth when he was just six years old! Although I found a place in my thesis for this case study, many others seemed destined to languish in my notes.

Then, in November 2014 I was invited to present a taster of my research to the BBC  at a workshop run by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, who funded my collaborative PhD with the British Library. I met another scholar there, Dr Siobhan Keenan, who has researched provincial performance in Shakespeare’s lifetime. We began discussions with the BBC about sharing this with the public, and Shakespeare on Tour is the final product.

I hope that this project will inspire others to delve into the British Library's Shakespeare collections, especially as thousands of digitised playbills are now available online

There are more fantastic digitised Shakespeare artefacts on the British Library's new Shakespeare website, and you can see a selection of playbills on display in the British Library's upcoming exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, opening 15 April.

The British Library and the Arts and Humanities Research Council offer a number of collaborative research placements every year. Find out more online here.

By Hannah Manktelow

18 March 2016

The British Library and India – an exciting new chapter

This weekend I am travelling to India for the opening of The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination at the National Museum, New Delhi. The exhibition, produced by SOAS University of London and held originally at the Brunei Gallery in 2013, is the first to offer an international perspective on one of the world’s most ancient religions and comes as SOAS celebrates its centenary year.

RSPA230_f151v_152rAn illustrated copy of the 'Law Against Demons' copied in Yazd, Iran, in 1647. One of the British Library loans featured in The Everlasting Flame exhibition. [British Library, RSPA 230, ff. 151v–152r.]

I’m especially delighted that the British Library is closely involved in The Everlasting Flame: one of our curators is part of a team of international experts co-curating the exhibition and the Library is lending 29 key items – the first time ever that the British Library has loaned original items to India. These include a 9th century prayer fragment which is the earliest surviving Zoroastrian text in the world, and a beautiful 15th century depiction of Zoroaster in an illuminated manuscript that belonged to Henry VIII.

The exhibition provides an epic narrative of Zoroastrianism from the second millennium BC to the present day, focusing on its rich cultural heritage. It includes sections on the spread of Zoroastrianism along the Silk Road, the Judeo-Christian heritage, and Zoroastrianism in Iran from the Achaemenid empire up to and including the Islamic period. Further sections are devoted to Zoroastrianism in India, the Parsis and the Parsi diaspora.

Or8212_84L Prayer  fragment dating back to the 9th century - the oldest Zoroastrian manuscript in the world. [British Library, Or. 8212/84.]

Along with texts, paintings and textiles the exhibition will include a walk-in fire temple and a ten-metre glass etching based on the cast of the western staircase from the palace of Darius at Persepolis, from the British Museum. All the British Library manuscripts featured in The Everlasting Flame will also be available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.

The Library’s involvement in The Everlasting Flame – which runs from 20 March to 31 May 2016 – is just the latest chapter in the developing story of the UK’s cultural exchange with India. The British Library holds one of the world’s greatest collections of material relating to South Asia and we are currently working with partner institutions across India on a range of projects that aim to make this material available to as wide an international audience as possible.

Cotton Augustus_5Depiction of Zoroaster (seated) as founder of the seven liberal arts, in the 14th century French world chronicle, Le Trésor des Histoires. [British Library, Cotton Augustus V, f. 25v.]  

Last year we launched the first phase of Two Centuries of Indian Print, a hugely ambitious digitisation project which seeks to digitise and make available online early printed South Asian language books dating from 1713-1914.

A pilot phase is currently underway to digitise 200,000 pages of Bengali books over the next six months, making a rich collection of printed materials, many unique, available online for the first time. At the same time, we are fundraising to digitise the entire collection of pre-1914 print materials – amounting to 11 million pages – and so are keen to talk to potential donors or partners to help make this a reality.

It is our mission to make these intellectual resources accessible to everyone, for research, inspiration and enjoyment, enabling people all over the world to appreciate India’s great cultural heritage in new and innovative ways.

Many of the beneficiaries will be in India itself, where the Indian government’s ‘Digital India’ initiative aims to universalise mobile and internet access across the country, and the National Virtual Library of India is ushering in a new era for research. We will contribute to capacity building in India through partnerships and workshops with Indian academic and research institutions.

The collections digitised through Two Centuries of Indian Print will stimulate advances in digital scholarship and commercial technology. These could include new techniques for scientific analysis of heritage material, new ways of processing the huge digital dataset and development of optical character recognition for South Asian languages.

Digitisation is a catalyst for new thinking and partnership – exactly the kind of relationship the UK seeks to build with India. Our digital research team recently released more than a million illustrations from 19th century books as an experiment in public engagement and crowd-sourcing dubbed the “mechanical curator”.  The impact was enormous: over 100 million views and 35,000 tags on Flickr in a single month. Imagine the impact of innovative ideas like that allied to the wealth of Indian culture.

Replica of the Fire Chamber, Manekji Navroji Sett Fire Temple, Mumbai. The Everlasting Flame Exhibition
Replica of the Fire Chamber, Manekji Navroji Sett Fire Temple, Mumbai. Image from 2013, when The Everlasting Flame exhibition was originally staged in the Brunei Gallery at SOAS. Photo courtesy of SOAS.

The historic cultural ties between Britain and India are emphatically not for the history books. Building on them and investing in them will forge bonds for the future. It will promote close connections between cultural and educational institutions, researchers and technology pioneers. It will empower new generations to work together.

Roly Keating

Chief Executive 


10 March 2016

The British Library’s research collections – slide shows from our Doctoral Open Days

In January and February 2016 the Library hosted a series of open days for first year PhD students. We were delighted to welcome over 600 students to the Library, drawn from over 50 Higher Education Institutions in the UK and beyond. We appreciate the overwhelmingly fantastic feedback we have received. These events are a staple of our postgraduate programme, and an important component of the Living Knowledge vision to support and stimulate research of all kinds.

British Library Reading Room Roof (Credit Tony Antoniou)Photo credit: Tony Antoniou.

We are pleased to be able to use this blog to share many of the slides from the series – both with those who attended the events and with the wider postgraduate research community. The slides contain a wealth of information about our research services and collections, and feature presentations from guest speakers, digital curators, current collaborative doctoral students and our reference teams. Click on the links below to see slides from each event (not all slides are available due to copyright issues).

Our curators have also prepared the following guides, which we hope you will find useful:

We appreciate there is a lot to take in on the Open Day – if you feel you would like to find out more, why not book onto one of our Library Tours or Conservation Studio Tours? At the end of this blog we’ve also included some links to pages you will probably be visiting fairly often over the course of your research.

Many thanks to everyone, from inside and outside the Library, who contributed to another fantastic series of events. And thanks too to everyone who attended – we really enjoyed meeting you and hearing about your research. We are looking forward to seeing you at the Library again soon.

You can discover more about our collections and resources online on our Subject Pages, through our dedicated Collections Guides, and across our full range of Blogs. And finally, if you have not already done so, make sure to Register for a Reader’s Pass and learn how to use our reading rooms.

James Perkins

Research and Postgraduate Development Manager