Posted by Nadya Miryanova BL Labs School Work Placement Student, currently studying at Lady Eleanor Holles, working with Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs.
Despite the fact that a week of my work experience here has already elapsed, I still can’t quite believe that I am lucky enough to find myself in this magnificent institution, let alone have access to ‘staff-only’ areas and actually be able to work here. One thing I particularly love is that I can enter the library in the early morning, before official opening hours, and see it evolve from a certain peaceful stillness to its usual excited buzz of activity as the day progresses and watch as the library is brought to life once more by the people that visit it.
A photograph of me by the book tower in the British Library
Previously, in a very serious and sophisticated catch-up session (including, of course, only work-related matters), Mahendra had discovered that I was a huge fan of the Harry Potter series. Although this subject may seem quite unexpected and completely out of context in this blog, it is actually very relevant, since on the next day, Mahendra had informed me that I would be able to meet the Harry Potter curator. This was something that caught me completely by surprise, but it also shamelessly sparked a child-like excitement within me, having loved the franchise ever since I was seven. A meeting was set for Monday morning, and I waited, with some impatience, to meet Julian Harrison, the curator of medieval manuscripts and also the man who was involved in the organisation of the Harry Potter exhibition.
People looking at an exhibition in the British Library
During the meeting, I was able to gain an insight into the working life of a curator. Julian explained the sorts of things involved in this role, and also talked more about the exhibitions themselves, where inspiration comes from, as well as previous exhibitions and their structure.
In addition to this, I was able to find out lots of details about the Harry Potter exhibition (it’s fascinating and definitely worth a visit, trust me!). Furthermore, we had an in-depth discussion about the Harry Potter series itself, and we talked about some of the key themes as well as key characters in the books. You’ll soon be able to find out more about the exhibition too, be sure to book your tickets early and visit the British Library to be part of what will truly be a magical experience!
A preview of the "Harry Potter- A History of Magic" Exhibition, coming soon on 27th October 2017
In the afternoon, I went to a classical music concert at the British Museum. As I stepped into the light interior of the museum, I felt a hundred memories instantly come to mind, dating back to various visits with my family and numerous school projects over the years. The British Library and British Museum singers presented a concert performance of ‘Trial by Jury’, an opera in one act, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. ‘Trial by Jury’ is set at a Court of Justice in 1876. The defendant, Edwin, has recently promised to marry a beautiful woman, Angelina, but has since changed his mind, for which reason Angelina is now suing him for Breach of Promise. After a multitude of entertaining events, involving the Jury, the public, the Usher, and many comic disagreements over the issue, a decision is finally reached. The Judge decides the only real logical solution to the problem is to marry Angelina himself, resulting in happiness for all parties. The choir then performed Te Deum, op 103, by Dvorak, a true choral masterpiece, and the performance itself was very moving.
Although the choir was relatively small in number, their bright and beautiful voices resonated across the room, creating a light-hearted and friendly atmosphere, upheld by the choir’s energy and enthusiasm. I always love seeing how music can unite people to interpret a piece together, and each member was fully involved in this collaborative effort to create stunning music, making the performance an unquestionable success.
The British Museum and British Library Singers
When I returned to the office, I checked my e-mails and saw that Laurence Roger, Project Support Officer in the Collections Division, had very kindly offered to help me examine a book about Catullus’ poetry. The book that I eventually saw was dating back to the 18th century, and I spent the last section of my day looking at this book with Laurence, who is very nice, and I felt extremely lucky to be able to have access to it.
One of the books that Laurence herself had lent me to look at.
My seventh day of work experience arrived, and almost as soon as I got into the office, I set up my desk and eagerly launched straight into my working day. My morning consisted of independent work, where I further developed my research project and carried on with the interview storyboard for Hannah-Rose Murray, a finalist of the BL Labs competition in 2016. Her project was centred on black American activists in the 19th century, particularly their speeches and lectures from the 1830s to the 1890s. This was a period of history that I previously knew little about, and so I enjoyed learning about the influence that black Americans had on British society and seeing the way Hannah went around creating her project, bringing history to life. Read more about her project here.
Map displaying the locations of Frederick Douglass’ lectures in the United Kingdom and Ireland, a small section of Hannah-Rose Murray's project
At 12:30, I attended a Welcome Day at the British Library, and this presented me with an excellent opportunity to not only find out more about the different departments of the library, but also to tell some new members of staff about some of the work the Digital Scholarship Department does (I was also provided with a free lunch, always a bonus!). I talked to a variety of departments, ranging from Human Resources to Publishing and Retail, and everyone was extremely friendly, helpful and accommodating.
In the afternoon, I worked independently once again, more specifically on a YouTube transcription of an interview with Melodee Beals, a 2016 research award winner, who created an amazing project entitled ‘Scissors and Paste’. This project utilises the 1800-1900 British Library Newspapers collection to explore the possibilities of mining large-scale newspaper databases for reprinted and re purposed news content.
Melodee Beals presenting her project, 'Scissors and Paste'
After finishing my working day, I decided to wonder around and explore the British Library. The amazing thing about this place is that it really does resemble a maze, I constantly find myself discovering new places and rooms, with each day presenting something new and different to the previous one.
As I entered the lift, I looked at the hard copy of my schedule, and I noticed that a meeting with a fashion company and members of the British Fashion Council was fixed that very morning. Feeling suddenly a little more self-conscious than usual about my appearance, I glanced cautiously in the mirror that was in the lift and my reflection stared back, wondering if anything could be done to cover the consequences that a malfunctioning alarm clock and getting ready in five minutes that morning could bring. After a few fruitless attempts of trying to somehow tame my hair, I finally accepted defeat and entered the meeting room.
The meeting at 9 o’clock was with a luxury womenswear brand. During the meeting, Mahendra introduced BL Labs, showing a presentation that informed the company about Digital Scholarship and detailed previous projects that the department had worked on, including ‘Burning Man’. A project with the fashion company was then initiated, which would involve the Library's collections, and some possible ideas for the project were also brainstormed. The fashion company talked more about their collections and how ideas for projects generally come about. It is inspiring to think how each individual collection, whether an assortment of garments or a literary exhibition of novels, tells its own unique story, and I found out that in many ways the research for the project is itself a sensational journey.
After this meeting, I returned back to my desk and had a quick catch-up with Mahendra, where we evaluated the YouTube transcription work, and the general progress made over the first half of this week. To finish off, I was whisked off to another meeting, this time with Wayne Boucher, a photographer who has a very big interest in beautiful stain-glass windows, and will be keeping in contact with the British Library to promote this stunning artwork.
A Tiffany stain-glass window
In the morning, I hurriedly entered the British Library through the staff entrance, as usual, but instead of walking over to the doors of the lift, I took a sharp right turn, and walked over to the Post Room. Mahendra had previously organised for me to visit the Post Room with Peter Clarke, Service Delivery Manager, Messenger/Post Service, and today I would be having a tour of certain sections of the building that are off bounds to not only the general public, but also to many members of staff. I was able to see the process of delivery take place, and even help with this crucial procedure, without which many of the library books that researchers and readers need would not be available. I was shown the delivery room by Keiran Duncan-Johnson, Late Team Leader LMS, Messenger/Post Service, Finance Division, and this was a huge, open space, which once more reminded me of the sheer scale of the place.
I was also kindly shown round other areas of the library I was previously unfamiliar with by Keiran, such as the modern languages sector and the Alan Turing Institute, both of which are incredible departments that work tirelessly to make great leaps in their corresponding fields of study to change the world for the better.
The Alan Turing Institute
The afternoon commenced with a meeting with the music curator, Chris Scobie. For the second time that day, I was lucky enough to visit a new area of the library that is of limited access, and Chris showed me the music reading room, and most notably, the basement. The basement is where all the music scores and manuscripts lie, and needless to say, I was incredibly excited. As we browsed through the shelves of the collections, I saw multiple familiar names of composers, such as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and I even got to read and touch some of Elgar’s letters to Vaughan Williams and look at his original manuscript for his Enigma Variations!
A digitised version of the original Elgar manuscript for the theme of the Enigma Variations
As I walked down the second floor corridor, I soon came to face the wooden door of the office for what it seemed was the last time. I sighed and a miserable thought came into my head, as I began to contemplate what on earth I was going to do with myself on Monday, when I was no longer going to work here. However, I soon brushed it off, and decided to make the most of my final day at the British Library.
The door to the office of the Digital Scholarship Department
My final day consisted of making concluding touches to my numerous projects, including refining and making last minute edits to some of the transcriptions I had done. I then met Christin Hoene from the University of Kent, who was working on a project that was based on the concept of sound within novels. I was able to show her some of the work that I did on Excel with my independent research project, which can be accessed here.
At lunchtime, rather than eating in the staff canteen as usual, I decided to eat my lunch in a free reading space in the centre of the library, whilst reading my book, ‘Mother Tongue’ by Bill Bryson. What I love most about libraries is that there are so many untold stories hiding in the shelves, and I feel like I could sit comfortably in here for hours. In fact, in the space of an hour, you could travel to as many as 10 countries, should you only have the will to open a few different books and immerse yourself in their stories. As Lloyd Alexander once said “Books can truly change our lives: the lives of those who read them, the lives of those who write them. Readers and writers alike discover things they never knew about the world and about themselves”.
Another great Lloyd Alexander quotation
Lastly, and most importantly, I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has made this experience a possibility for me, especially Mahendra, who has not only been very kind and patient, but has also provided me with so many wonderful opportunities and has helped me hugely with a multitude of different things. I have always loved books since a young age, and to be surrounded by so many was in itself very special, but to be able to work in the library and help the Digital Scholarship Department was just incredible. My experience here has taught me multiple valuable things, which is something I am eternally grateful for.
The same way I would never judge a book by its front cover, I will not judge a building by its name, for the British Library is infinitely more than just a residence for books. It is a museum in which there are many exhibitions, it is a research centre, and most importantly, it is an institution that stores the world’s knowledge behind its brick walls.
The British Library
Inspiration can really come from absolutely anywhere, and from something small you can make something incredibly vast. It makes you think what you could do and what a difference it could make, if only you just choose to try. Inevitably, in life, you have to take risks, but more often than not, lots of these are worth taking in an attempt to brighten and bring artistic colour as well as creativity to the world. In the words of Stephen King, “books are a uniquely portable magic”, something which certainly rings true within the walls of this institution, where so many items are kept and so many new ones are constantly being acquired and discovered.
So, I send a big thank you to the British Library and all who work here, for making what was essentially a childhood dream into a reality and this will truly be a chapter of my life that I will always remember.