The site covers over 1000 years of English literature in context, from medieval to 20th-century writing. It includes iconic items like William Blake’s notebook, J B Priestley’s letter from the trenches, to the manuscripts of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Andrea Levy’s Small Island. But what makes them different is that they’re placed alongside other vivid contextual sources to bring the authors’ worlds to life – posters, photos and broadsides, maps, guides to magic and marriage, even locks of authors’ hair. These are then embedded in articles, films and teachers’ notes on everything from tragedy to the Gothic, modernism and madness.
A screenshot showing the Discovering Literature home-page, with period-based portals.
We’ve also been really keen to engage with primary school children, so we’re delighted to have launched a brand new branch of the site – Discovering Children’s Books. It explores the history and rich variety of children’s literature through centuries of stories, poems, Illustrations and moveable books.
Edward Lear’s ‘nonsense’ manuscript, February 1865 © Estate of Edward Lear. Shelfmark: Add MS 47462.
There's such a huge variety of content on Discovering Literature, finding it all and then commissioning contextual material must be a huge effort? Who are some of the key groups you work with to bring it all together?
We always work really closely with the Library curators, drawing on their passion and expertise to help us to find hidden gems. So with Discovering Children’s Books, it was great that you, Callum, could show us Caribbean British writer James Berry’s archive, and dig out his brilliant – but sadly never recorded – radio script on racism in children’s books.
We often partner with other libraries, museums and universities, to bring together stunning items and exchange ideas. It was fantastic to work with Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, on this project. We showcase lots of their treasures – from Judith Kerr’s childhood drawings to Enid Blyton’s typescripts and John Agard’s poetry notebook – alongside lovely items from the British Library, the Bodleian and the V&A.
Childhood drawing by Judith Kerr, c. 1932–38 © By Judith Kerr. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Example of an item from an external museum, Seven Stories, the National Centre for Childrens' Books in Newcastle.
We also commission teachers, poets, scholars, actors and artists to create many of the articles and activities on our sites. On Discovering Children’s Books, we have behind-the-scenes films of Axel Scheffler and Viviane Schwarz in their studios, interviews with Jacqueline Wilson and other much-loved authors and illustrators, poetry prompts from Joseph Coelho, as well as tips on creating comic characters from our own brilliant apprentice Iqra Babar.
A lot of content on Discovering Literature is geared towards school-aged children. How does your team go about making content for this audience?
We always consult with teachers and subject organisations to make sure our sites are useful, inspiring and accessible; we want to support the curriculum, but also offer fresh ideas. So we rifle through the archives to find visual, quirky items and ask kids to respond to them in new, creative ways.
We often show rough sketches, messy drafts and notebooks, which expose famous authors as human and fallible. The drafts reveal that texts are not divine objects, descended ready-made from the sky – or the exam board – but part of a creative process. And we hope this is empowering – encouraging children to experiment without worrying about making mistakes.
As Goldsmiths’ National Outreach Manager for Digital Learning, it’s (usually) my job to share ideas at workshops for teachers and children all across the UK.
Do you have a personal favourite collection item or page?
This changes with every new module! When I was working on the 18th-century section of Discovering Literature, I was blown away by the manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho. He was a writer, composer, busy shopkeeper and anti-slavery campaigner – and the first Black man to vote in a British election in 1774. Having known nothing about him, I fell madly in love with his wit and warmth, his obsession with Tristram Shandy. and his appreciation for his wife (‘she is truly [my] best part’)!
One of the only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho, 1776–1820. Public Domain in most countries other than the UK. Shelfmark: Add MS 89077.
I love those letters too! It's a really special collection! Which brings me to my last question -- as more and more of us are staying at home, often looking after and schooling our children, do you have any favourite Discovering Literature pages you’d like to highlight for them?
If you want to get your heads round your teenagers’ set texts, we have rich resources on many of them including An Inspector Calls, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, A Christmas Carol and Macbeth.
Poster for An Inspector Calls at the Leningrad Comedy Theatre, 1945 © J.B. Priestley Archive, Special Collections, University of Bradford.
Or Discovering Children’s Books has a whole bank of creative activities, from inventing your own superhero to making a miniature book for your toys. On Twitter – @BL_Learning – we’re going to be asking children to share their creations, working together to make a National Library of mini books. We’d love your kids to contribute!
John Marshall’s Infants’ Library (1800–01?). Shelfmark: C.194.a.945.
Thanks so much Andrea! It's been really fascinating to learn more about how Discovering Literature is put together, and I can't wait to see the results of the creative activities for children!