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Behind the scenes at the British Library


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

07 June 2017

Sellout success: Jaipur Literary Festival lights up the Library

Audience at Inaugural Address of ZEE JLF at British Library photo by Stuart Armitt - SMALLER

On Saturday 20 and Sunday 21 May we had a taste of ‘the greatest literature show on Earth’ as the legendary Jaipur Literature Festival came to the British Library at St Pancras.

Founded in 2006 Jaipur Literature Festival sees authors from South Asia and across the world come together for five days of readings, debates and discussions in Jaipur, India. May 2017 was the fourth London edition of the festival, and we were thrilled to be hosting it as part of the events marking the seventieth anniversary of Indian independence and the UK-India Year of Culture.

ZeeJLF @ BL was a fantastically rich and vibrant takeover of the Library, with spoken word, music, performance and debate spread across the Knowledge Centre, a temporary marquee on the piazza, and a specially erected stage in the Entrance Hall.

Nayanika Mahtani in Meet the Mongols_ZEE JLF@British Library_INDIA UK YEAR OF CULTURE_Photo Stuart Armitt 3 - SMALLERNayanika Mahtani in Meet the Mongols, ZEE JLF@British Library. Photo: Stuart Armitt.

Hailed by the Indian Express as a ‘sellout success’, the festival saw crowds flocking to the Library, including many first-time visitors, from Saturday morning till late on Sunday, enjoying everything from a panel on P G Wodehouse in India, to an extraordinary collaboration between White Mughals author William Dalrymple and musician Vidya Shah.

One of the Library’s core Purposes is our commitment to international collaboration: we promise to 'work with partners around the world to advance knowledge and mutual understanding', and this reflects the fact that while we may be the British Library, our collections are truly international. The Library's culture and learning programming is always layered with distinct elements reflecting our collections and expertise from all parts of the world, and our recently opened exhibitions about the Russian Revolution at our London base, and an exhibition about icons of British literature in Beijing, are testament to this.    

Gramophone Women_Vidya Shah with Rachel Dwyer_ZEE JLF at British Library 2017_Photo by Stuart Armitt 2 - SMALLERGramophone Women: Vidya Shah with Rachel Dwyer at ZEE JLF at British Library. Photo: Stuart Armitt.

Special sessions highlighted the richness of our collections and curatorial knowledge base, and featured several curators working with collections from and relating to South Asia, including a session highlighting ten treasures from our South Asian collections.

On Saturday evening, British Library Chairman Tessa Blackstone welcomed VIP guests, including the High Commissioner of India to the UK, His Excellency Mr Y K Sinha. Celebrations continued at the High Commissioner’s residence on Sunday night once the festival had ended.

The singular JLF atmosphere – colours, crowds streaming across the Library piazza in the sun (another, unexpected, import from Jaipur), the sounds of the musicians who start each day with a gloriously uplifting Reveille – did not so much transform as amplify those very special British Library spaces.

The Dishonourable Company_Giles Milton_John Keay_Jon Wilson_Zareer Masani in conversation wtih WIlliam Dalrymple 4 - SMALLERGiles Milton, John Keay, Jon Wilson and Zareer Masani in conversation (with William Dalrymple) on the history of the East India Company. Photo: Stuart Armitt.

What made JLF's new residency at the BL so congruent was the connections each panellist or speaker could draw to the exceptional Library collections that relate to India and the wider region. Whether poet Daljit Nagra explaining his version of the Ramayana, author Shrabani Basu in conversation with director Stephen Frears about the research for her book Victoria and Abdul (released as a film this autumn), or a session on the East India Company, participants made explicit links to – and grateful acknowledgment of – the resources and curatorial interpretation of the Library

The feat of organisational and imaginative energy needed to host a Festival of this scale was tremendous, and drew on huge contributions from across the Library, led by Head of Cultural Events Jon Fawcett and his team.

Building on the success of the festival in London, and on our presence in Jaipur earlier this year with a facsimile of Magna Carta, we hope to collaborate more in the future.

Jamie Andrews

Head of Culture and Learning


24 May 2017

Taking British Library literary treasures to China

Just a few weeks ago I was standing in the main entrance hall to the National Museum of Classical Books at the Chinese National Library in Beijing.

I was excited, proud (and, having coming straight off the plane, very spacey) when introducing our major exhibition, Shakespeare to Sherlock: Treasures of the British Library, to the Chinese media: the first time we had ever displayed British Library collections in China…and what a way to start.

According to his oft-repeated aphorism, Lao Tzu (the 6th century Chinese philosopher and founding father of Taoism) had it that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’; for the Beijing exhibition, however, we leapt straight in and, together with our brilliant partners at the National Library of China, successfully opened a major blockbuster display showcasing some of the greatest authors, and most significant collections, of over five hundred years of English literature.

DSC_7438-smallerAbove: Jamie Andrews and British Library China Project Manager Kai-Chuan Chapman welcome journalists to the press view of the Shakespeare to Sherlock exhibition. Top: Lead Curator Alexandra Ault (British Library) and Liu Chang (National Library of China) supervise the installation of loan items featured in the exhibition.

The exhibition was the ambitious start of a major project ‘The British Library in China: Connecting through culture and learning’ that (with generous support of the UK Government) will see us undertake a programme of exhibition touring, learning activity, and Knowledge Exchange programmes over the next three years, working with partners across Mainland China and Hong Kong.

DSC_3390-smallerThe exhibition features original works by ten literary and cultural icons drawn from the British Library's collections, alongside a host of translations, adaptations, critical responses and rare editions from the National Library of China's collections.

Shakespeare to Sherlock…, which runs until 21 June, showcases ten exceptional figures from British culture-poets, playwrights, composers…even fictional characters-and pairs them with collections from the Chinese National Library to tell a story about translation, distribution, and reception by readers and audiences in China. You’ll see George III’s own copy of an early 1599 edition of Romeo and Juliet, handwritten early manuscripts of Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and a Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle; and you’ll explore how these iconic texts made their way onto Chinese bookshelves and stages through the work of equally exceptional and imaginative translators and adapters.

Chinese Minister of Culture Luo Shugang touring the exhibition in Beijing with British Library Chairman Baroness Tessa Blackstone.

Alongside our display of physical artefacts, we also launched the British Library’s first ever Chinese language learning website, featuring all of the collections we’ll tour to China over the next few years (and much more), contextualised and enriched by expert articles from writers in both China and the UK. This content is already being shared with audiences across China through WeChat and Weibo (Chinese social media), and we will continue to add to the resource over the next few months.

We’re not only sharing collections, but also want to share knowledge and experience with our Chinese partners, and it’s this behind-the-scenes collaboration that is perhaps the most valuable and exciting longer term. We’re sending Library colleagues to work with libraries, galleries, and museums across China, and we’re looking forward to welcoming colleagues from China to the British Library. If our Chinese language lessons, which we’re rolling out to staff across the British Library, go well, our visiting Chinese partners will hopefully be pleasantly surprised by our developing linguistic capabilities; and we want to do much more to make the British Library an attractive and welcoming space for all visitors from China-whether holidaying, or living in London. 

DSC_9216-smallerThe opening ceremony of the exhibition at the National Library of China. Shakespeare to Sherlock: Treasures of the British Library runs until 21 June 2017.

Beijing is just the start (next stop: Wuzhen, and then Shanghai); but already we’ve learned so much from working with Chinese partners and friends in so many different areas, and started to make connections that we hope will endure with so many people online and in the exhibition gallery.

Jamie Andrews

Head of Culture and Learning


19 May 2017

Celebrating Bengali New Year at the British Library


Saturday 29 April saw the British Library host a celebration of Bengali New Year in the Knowledge Centre with 200 people from the local community.

The Library teamed up with Age UK Camden to put on the event which included presentations, talks with curators, a pop-up exhibition celebrating Bangla films of the 1940s, traditional Bengali food, live music and dance.


Camden Councillor Samata Khatoon (pictured, above) kicked off the day’s activities with a speech about the importance of Bengali New Year and the Library’s involvement in this year’s celebrations.

Layli Uddin, project curator of Two Centuries of Indian Print, gave a presentation on the Library’s Bengali collections, which was followed by curator Jody Butterworth presenting on the Endangered Archives Programme.

The event included the launch of a new pop-up travelling exhibition which celebrates 1940s Bangla films and includes key items from the Library’s collection. The exhibition, which also includes artwork by Age UK Camden as well as the Mother and Toddler Group from Edith Neville Primary School, is now touring venues in the Somers Town community. Its first stop is Regent High School and another four venues have requested to host it.


Guests enjoyed a Bengali-inspired lunch in the Knowledge Centre Bar and went out of their way to praise the traditional dishes on offer for their authentic flavours.

The afternoon’s activities included classical Indian dance by Priyanka Basu (pictured, top), who works cataloguing Bengali books for the Two Centuries of Indian Print project. Priyanka holds a PhD from the Department of the Languages and Cultures of South Asia, SOAS London for her thesis on Bengali Kobigan: Performers, Histories, and the Cultural Politics of ’Folk'.


Renowned Indian-Bangladeshi singer Sahana Bajpaie performed live as part of the group Sahana Bajpaie and Friends. The group included the oud (Syrian lute), Indian percussion and a keyboard in their lively set. The combination of the music and dance really brought the celebration to life.

The closing speech came from local community leader Barbara Hughes MBE, former Mayor of Camden and trustee of Age UK Camden.


We were really pleased that so many local people came to this event – and for many of them it wast their first ever visit to the British Library. It was fantastic to have our experts presenting to local people and sharing the Library’s knowledge. We’re confident that people will have left knowing quite a lot more about what goes on here,  and hopefully the travelling exhibition will inspire people to get in touch with us too.

Emma Morgan & Amber Perrier

Community Engagement Manager and Community Engagement Trainee


Find out more about the work of the Library's Community Engagement team by following @BL_Local