Living Knowledge blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library


Experts and directors at the British Library blog about strategy, key projects and future plans Read more

06 February 2018

2018 at the British Library – a peek into our plans (part II)

Fresh from our whistle-stop tour of Library highlights in part I, we continue our look to the year ahead and explore what our colleagues will be working on.

So, who else is *very* excited?


Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator, Spoken English

‘Here are some departmental highlights for 2018:

Two new PhD students (Andrew Booth and Rowan Campbell) take up three-month placements to assist with accessioning the substantial Evolving English: VoiceBank.

Andrew Booth & Rowan CampbellAndrew and Rowan at work.

East Midlands English to be published later this year by de Gruyter Mouton, based principally on data from British Library sound recordings.

C is for Cob

An updated SOUNDS website is to be developed as part of the HLF-funded Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.’

Follow our Sound and Vision blog to discover more.


Polly Russell, Curator for Contemporary Politics and Public Life

‘2018 is the centenary of women first gaining the vote in the UK and so it seems especially fitting that the Contemporary Politics & Public Life department is about to embark on a three-year research project called The Business of Women’s Words with Sussex and Cambridge Universities examining the entrepreneurial practices and people who started the feminist magazine Spare Rib and women’s publisher Virago. The project will add new oral histories of feminist publishing to the library’s collections as well as creating a digital map of the Women’s Liberation Movement.

SpareRibFront cover Issue 1 July 1972 - Women Smiling by Angela Phillips. Usage terms: © Angela Phillips Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

With my food history and food politics hat on I am looking forward to curating the British Library’s forthcoming Food Season. Taking place throughout April and May the season will include talks and tastings with celebrity chefs, food historians and food activists with topics ranging from histories of cheese making to the importance of family meals to the politics of food production.

The Contemporary Politics & Public Life department is delighted to announce the completion of a collaborative project between the British Library and three US institutions digitising and making available the archives of four key individuals in the Cybernetics movement.’

Polly Russell Photo 1

Polly Russell

See more on the Spare Rib project here and read our Social Sciences blog for more updates from Polly and the team.

Tickets for our Food Season events programme will be available to book from 1 March 2018.


Philip Abraham, Assistant at the Eccles Centre for American Studies

‘The Eccles Centre has a very exciting 2018 ahead. Event highlights in 2018 include our annual Bryant Lecture, which will be given by the BBC’s Security Correspondent Gordon Corera, and a workshop for younger visitors organised with Benjamin Franklin House exploring the scientific legacy of this legendary American polymath. As usual we will also be welcoming scholars and academics from around the world to explore the British Library’s North American collections, many of whom will be sharing their findings as part of our ‘summer scholars’ series of salons here at the Library.  

Our support for research into the Canadian, Caribbean and US-related holdings of the British Library will take something of a new direction this year, as we focus on a number of key themes and research agendas.

From April, we’ll be committing time, energy and resources particularly towards projects on the following areas: North American and Caribbean indigenous studies; literary, theatrical and artistic connections in Canada, the Caribbean and the US; book history and arts in Canada, the Caribbean and the US; the ‘ American Lake’ and the politics of the Pacific Ocean; migration in/from/through Canada, the Caribbean and the US; and LGBTQ politics, culture and experiences in Canada, the Caribbean and the US.

We remain keen as ever, though, to encourage and support a whole range of researchers beyond as well as within academia. We are, for instance, really excited to find out what our 2018 Writers Award winners, novelist Stuart Evers and memoirist Tessa McWatt, will discover here at the library, as well as our Makin Fellows (a new award for shorter-term research for creative or non-fiction writing projects), George Goodwin and Karin Altenberg.

Tessa and stuart croppedThe winners of the 2018 Eccles British Library Writer’s Award are the novelist and short story writer Stuart Evers, and the author, librettist and screenwriter Tessa McWatt. Photo © Ander McIntyre.

We’re also really looking forward to the British Library’s Windrush exhibition in the Entrance Hall (1 June to 21 October 2018), which is being curated by our colleague Elizabeth Cooper from the Americas team, and which we’re very proud to be supporting. What’s so original and compelling about this exhibition is that it won’t only explore the consequences for Britain of post-war mass migration from the Caribbean, but that it will also look at the Windrush as an important moment in Caribbean history, and the region’s tumultuous twentieth-century journey towards independence. The Eccles Centre is fully committed to promoting research and debate in Caribbean studies as well as the work on US and Canadian studies that we’re more well-known for, so it’s a real privilege and a thrilling opportunity to be involved in this project.’

Windrush (c) IWM
HMT Empire Windrush © IWM (FL 9448)

The team will keep you updated with their work on the Americas blog. You can also follow their work @BL_Americas and @BL_EcclesCentre.


Stella Wisdom, Digital Curator, Digital Scholarship

‘Fellow Digital Curator Mia Ridge said that she is looking forward to more Digital Scholarship blog posts from In the Spotlight participants, like this one from medievalist Edward Mills.

Find out more about the In the Spotlight project here.

  InTheSpotlight_Come_and_PlayThe Library’s collection has over a thousand volumes holding thousands of fragile playbills

Also, on a personal note, Mia will be teaching a new subject, Collections as Data with Thomas Padilla for the Humanities Intensive Learning + Teaching (HILT) digital humanities summer school.

I’m looking forward to collaborating with the Living Knowledge Network on digital skills sharing days including one on digital sustainability on 1 March in Norwich, and one on maker spaces in Exeter on 14 June. Here’s a blog post about the games and play skills sharing day in Leeds on 9 November 2017.

  SkillsSharingDay_2017Photo from November 2017’s skills sharing day (image © Stella Wisdom)

I’m also looking forward to the Infinite Journeys: Interactive Fiction Summer School taking place 23 – 27 July, this is collaboration with Library’s Learning Team. And my involvement in the AHRC-funded  Creating a Chronotopic Ground for the Mapping of Literary Texts: Innovative Data Visualisation and Spatial Interpretation in the Digital Medium project, led by Lancaster University.

This three-year project will focus on a selection of imaginary spaces from a variety of famous literary texts, using geographic information systems (GIS) to capture, store, manipulate, analyse and present spatial and geographic data, creating an array of interactive and 3-D outputs, including building environments in Minecraft, ‘Litcraft’, which can be used as imaginative teaching resources.’


Litcraft: Mapping Minecraft Across Literature

Stella and the Digital Scholarship team will keep you up to date with their project on their blog.

Keep an eye on our What’s On pages for more information on booking for the summer school.


As ever, we’ll let you know about key projects and where you can get involved on the Library’s main social channels too. And we always want to know about how you’re using our collection; share your progress and pictures with us using Twitter and Instagram.

Here’s to an inspired, and inspiring, 2018!

Content and Community Team

(Rachael Williams, Shimei Zhou, Ellen Morgan)


22 January 2018

2018 at the British Library – a peek into our plans (part I)

Hello! The Content and Community team here and it’s our job to uncover the stories of the Library and tell them to you through social media and beyond.

We’ve decided that our New Year’s resolution is to find out even more about how our collection is inspiring you and your plans for the year ahead.

To kick things off, we’ve been speaking to our colleagues around the Library to see what projects they are most looking forward to in 2018 and how they and their teams will be exploring the collection.

So hold onto your hats, folks. It looks to be a busy one…

Dr Cordelia Rogerson, Head of Collection Management South

‘In 2018 the Conservation team will be supporting an ever expanding range of items being digitised. Newspapers, papyrus, Ethiopic manuscripts to name a few.

IMG_1826Artefacts from the Punch Archive stored in Boston Spa and in a box made by Collection Care North

We look forward to welcoming more visitors to the Centre for Conservation and our events and Events and Outreach Managers, Liz Rose and Flavio Marzo, are on hand to arrange tours and special events. In 2018 we have scheduled four tours with a sign language interpreter for deaf people.

We are also expanding and developing the Collection Care team in Boston Spa to support a wider range of activities on that site including digitisation. The new Collection Care North Manager, Emily Watts is starting in January 2018.’

Shelflife pic of staffAn image of the team in the British Library Centre for Conservation

Take a look at our Collection Care blog for updates from the team.


Dr James Perkins, Research & Post-Graduate Development Manager

‘In 2018 we are looking forward to working with colleagues and partners to deliver a whole host of new collaborative research projects, training events, placements and fellowships and collaborative projects.

Staff Profiles_004 (compressed)James Perkins (top) with members of his Research & Post-Graduate Development team

We are also really excited about the Karl and Eleanor Marx exhibition in the Treasures Gallery, which will draw on the findings of a great research placement that Diana Siclovan recently supervised in the Research Development team.’

Add MS 45748  f.11Add MS 45748, f.11 is part of the ‘Karl and Eleanor Marx in the Reading Room’ exhibition

Want to know more about Library research projects, resources, events and research methods? You’ll like our Social Sciences blog.


Dr Claire Breay, Head of Ancient Medieval & Early Modern Manuscripts, Western Heritage Collections


Claire is Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library

‘I’m looking forward to the opening of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, bringing together treasures from the Library’s own manuscript collection with many amazing loans.’

BeowulfBeowulf spoke … (‘Beoƿulf maþelode …’): British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r – the unique manuscript of Beowulf, held in the British Library, will be displayed in autumn’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

Follow Claire and Medieval Manuscripts on Twitter for more updates, and of course, our Digitised Manuscripts blog.

And this is just for starters. From foodie updates and feminist publishing, accents to America – stay tuned for part II. Something caught your eye? Let us know what you’re looking forward to using @britishlibrary.

Content and Community Team

(Rachael Williams, Shimei Zhou, Ellen Morgan)


21 December 2017

A year of reading the Russian Revolution

   Violence - Retreating-the-Whites smaller
“To live your life is not as simple as to cross a field” – the Russian proverb incorporated by Yury Zhivago into one of his poems is perhaps the greatest understatement of the twentieth century. Not only in relation to the novel to which he gives his name – famously epic in scope and vision – but also to the theme of the Russian Revolution, one of the most monumental events in world history and, given the scale of mayhem and human tragedy it unleashed, pretty much as far from a walk in the park as it’s possible to get.

The Library marked the events of 1917 earlier this year with a major exhibition, Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths, which ran from April to August and told the story of the Revolution and its aftermath through a vast range of original documents, posters, photographs and objects. From Lenin’s own letter applying for a reader’s ticket for the British Museum Library to a dazzling selection of Red and White Russian propaganda posters, the exhibition brought the period to vivid life, highlighting the complexity of the forces at work.

The great pleasure of working in the Library’s press office is coming into contact with curators who are often leading experts in their field, usually at a point when they have spent years researching and pulling together the themes, star items and governing narrative of their exhibition. Katya Rogatchevskaia and Susan Reed curated the Russian Revolution exhibition with expertise, insight and passion, and the critical acclaim and box office success the exhibition enjoyed were well deserved.    

From a press officer’s perspective, the downside of the role is the almost countless opportunities – in the face of such expertise – to feel like a bear of very little brain. Winging it on the basis half-remembered A-level revision notes is not really an option, so a certain amount of reading around the subject is essential if you’re to get a sense of the story angles that might get journalists interested.

My homework began a year ago with an anniversary screening at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square of Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), a spectacular, if uneven, account of the life, work and love affairs of John Reed, radical American author of Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), one of the earliest and most breathless journalistic accounts of the Revolution. While the main love story, between Beatty’s Reed and fellow journalist Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton) is a little on the soapy side, the supporting cast is excellent – especially Maureen Stapledon as regretful anarchist Emma Goldman, Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill and Jerzy Kosinsky’s Zinoviev.


Reading Ten Days subsequently, the things Beatty captured most effectively about Reed were his passion for revolutionary socialism and his desperation to be at the centre of things. Of Petrograd in 1917 he captures the perpetual fug of cigarette smoke in the Smolny Institute and the roaring, riotous process of how propositions were debated, argued down or passed, with the resulting blizzard of proclamations making their way out into the city in newspapers, handbills, posters and pamphlets. As a piece of instant history the book stands alongside Homage to Catalonia; it was a huge bestseller upon publication and made its author a millionaire.

For the wider context of that (all too) brief moment of hope and possibility I turned to Orlando Figes’ 1997 doorstopper A People’s Tragedy, which traces the causes and consequences of the Revolution from 1891 to 1924. Figes tells the story through a cast of key individuals – from Tsarist warrior turned defender of the Revolution General Brusilov to peasant activist Sergei Semenov. It’s a bold and effective technique, tying continent-wide cataclysm to individual experience, ensuring that the bigger political picture – particularly the evolution of the Terror and the brutal progress of the Civil War – remains comprehensible at a human level. This colossal book is best tackled at full-tilt, ideally over the Christmas holidays, when you can immerse yourself in it for hours on end.

The opening section of A People’s Tragedy highlights the instability of the Russia of Nicholas II, balanced as it was upon the rotting pillars of the Tsarist bureaucracy, the army and the church. A wayward and brilliant account of just how far and wide that rot had spread is Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg, which is set in the revolutionary false dawn of 1905 but which was actually published on the very eve of Revolution in 1916. The city it depicts is a dazzling imperial capital that has started to collapse from within, and the action unfolds over the length of time it takes a primed bomb (which, like the city, is one of the main characters) to explode. The surrealism of the approach suits the subject matter: the movements back and forth across the city of an aristocratic Tsarist official and his dilettante son, with both of them moving ever closer to the bomb ticking at the foundations of their world.

“Petersburg streets possess one indisputable quality:” writes Bely, “they transform passersby into shadows.” This seems to have been the case since Gogol’s Overcoat and the hallucinatory qualities of Petersburg transform it from a Modernist urban novel (prefiguring Ulysses in a variety of ways) into something even stranger and harder to shake off: a city-wide premonition of impending catastrophe.

Front-cover-of-1st-russian-edition-of-dr-zhivago-private-collectionFront cover of the first Russian edition of Doctor Zhivago, private collection. 

The view from Moscow is depicted in thrilling detail in Doctor Zhivago (1958). I’d watched the film many times and, upon finally reading the book, was delighted to find how faithful Robert Bolt’s screenplay was to its source. Indelible scenes such as Lara shooting Komarovsky, the train journey from Moscow to Yuryatin and the final scene of Zhivago on the tram are lifted straight off the page. The film does however shy away from the sheer savagery of the civil war, which the book captures in graphic detail – especially a harrowing sequence depicting the consequences of a failed mutiny among Red partisans in the taiga.

If Zhivago has a limitation, it’s that the largely bourgeois characters experience the Revolution as something done to them – they seem almost bystanders at the scene of their own tragedy (except for the loathsome Komarovsky, who seizes the opportunity to fill his boots). This lack of agency is a luxury not afforded to the cast of Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard, which illuminates how the Civil War crashed in successive waves across Ukraine.

Apparently semi-autobiographical, White Guard depicts the cataclysm as it affects the Turbins, a family fighting on the White side of the conflict. Confusingly, the invading force at the gates of Kyiv isn’t the Red Army, but that of Ukrainian nationalist Symon Vasylevych Petlyura. Bulgakov later wrote that between 1918 and 1923 Kyivans suffered 18 coups – 14 of which he could confirm and ten of which he experienced for himself. White Guard conveys this atmosphere of dread and chaos with extraordinary immediacy.

What Kyiv undergoes is not merely defeat – as with, say, Paris in Sartre’s Iron in the Soul – but an absolute rout. In this situation the White troops don’t simply surrender – they flee, urged by their officers to tear off their epaulettes, discard their weapons and destroy all identifying documents. The recurring motif is Judgement Day and the apocalyptic mood is fully justified by the scale of the trauma. In a matter of hours, the Turbins go from fighting for their way of life to fighting for life itself.

Amazingly, given its sympathetic depiction of a White family and a doomed class, the novel was repurposed by Bulgakov into a stage play which enjoyed huge success from 1926 to 1941 as The Days of the Turbins. It was one of Stalin’s favourite plays.

Bulgakov-wikimedia-285 Bulgakov-wikimedia-285
Mikhail Bulgakov (image: Wikimedia Commons), Mikhail Sholokhov (image: Wikimedia Commons)

Having read a succession of novels I turned next to Robert Service’s 2000 biography of Lenin. Drawing especially upon a wealth of correspondence that became suddenly available in Russian archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it paints a complex portrait of the Bolshevik leader, his pre-Revolution wanderings round Europe – including an extended stay in Bloomsbury – and his ruthless seizure of power, first of the in-exile Russian Social-Democrat Labour Party, and subsequently of the Russian state itself.

Considering how much of it focuses on power-political manoeuvrings (there are an awful lot of committees in the history of the Russian Revolution) it’s a surprisingly exciting and exotic read. Although Lenin is hugely dislikeable, even repellent, in his monomania and indifference to human suffering, his sheer dynamism and cunning are queasily impressive. As an object lesson in how to manipulate organisational structures so as to concentrate power around oneself, it’s something of a wonder that his life hasn’t inspired a best-seller on how to get ahead in big business.

White-army-recruitment-poster-circa-1919-copyright-british-library-cropDetail of a White Russian recruitment poster, c.1919. Copyright British Library.

Returning to fiction, the final book I read was Mikhail Sholokhov’s vast novel of life and war among the Cossacks, And Quiet Flows the Don. It follows a rural family, the Melekhovs, and their wider community – from the workers at the local mill to the nearby aristocratic landlord – as they pass from peace, through war and revolution, to civil war. Tolstoyan in scope, it portrays both the Red and White perspectives, and all levels of society. The brutality of rural life is rendered unsparingly, from the horse-trading involved in marriage alliances between Cossack families to the gruelling scenes of domestic violence. Once the nation goes to war, the Cossacks’ status as a warrior caste means that the young men of entire villages saddle up and ride off in defence of Tsar and country, plunging headlong into the maelstrom of violence and waste that was the Russian experience of the conflict.

It’s by some way the most shattering book I read on the period, completely immersive in its depictions of battle and revolution, but also capturing the love, pity and terror experienced by individuals caught up in events far beyond their comprehension. Although it doesn’t entirely hang together towards the end – with many loose ends left unresolved – Sholokhov’s refusal of a pat conclusion is perhaps appropriate, ending not with glory or tragedy, but the fearful squalor of a botched summary execution.

Ben Sanderson

Head of Press and Communications


Lead image: Retreating, the Whites are burning crops. Soviet propaganda poster, c.1918-21.

You can explore a range of expert articles and collection items relating to the Russian Revolution at the British Library website.


Further reading

John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World (1919)

Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (1996)

Andrei Bely, Petersburg (1916; English translation by Robert A Maguire and John E Malmstead, 1978)

Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (1958, English translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari)

Mikhail Bulgakov, White Guard (1925; English translation by Marian Schwartz, 2008)

Robert Service, Lenin: A Biography (2000)

Mikhail Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don (1929; English translation by Stephen Garry, 1934)


I am grateful to Olga Kerziouk for her additional recommendation on Bulgakov's Kyiv and the Ukrainian Revolution:

Irena R. Makaryk and Virlana Tkacz (editors) Modernism in Kiev :Kyiv/Kyïv/Kiev/Kijów/Ḳieṿ : jubilant experimentation (2010) YD.2010.b.2612