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Behind the scenes at the British Library


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15 September 2021

Welcoming local friends back through our doors in London

As our building in St Pancras fully opened up this summer, we were excited to welcome back friends and neighbours on our doorstep after well over a year, thanks to the Holiday Activities Fund (HAF) programme.

Group from KCBNA
The brilliant group from KCBNA including youth workers Kamil, Ali and Nathan

In partnership with Young Camden Foundation and Camden Council, young people from the King’s Cross Brunswick Neighbourhood Association (KCBNA) community enjoyed fun learning activities, gained new skills and were inspired by stories of local start-up successes across two weeks of the holidays here at the Library.

In the first week our curators shared all kinds of items from our collection with the youngest children in the group, covering the origins of the Olympics, football fanzines and the first-ever published comics.

For most of the group it was their first time coming through the doors of our St Pancras building. And once inside they got a full behind-the-scenes tour including some of the most important books, maps and manuscripts in our collection on display in the Treasures Gallery, plus a first-hand experience of campaigning for change in our exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights. Local art teacher Annabel Levin also ran a workshop where the children got stuck into a tie-dying session.

Annabel with cotton and coloured dyes
Annabel with cotton that the group had tie-died with colourful ink, pebbles and string

In the second week local teenagers met with Matt Judkins MBA,  inventor of the world’s flattest international charger. Matt introduced the group to the world of start-up businesses from budgeting to branding. He told us how to sell a product or service and challenged the group to invent something new and original to take to market.

The enthusiastic group pitched their brilliant ideas in front of an audience and panel of our Business & IP Centre users who had previously benefitted from our start-up business support services. Among them was local entrepreneur, Ije Ene, who runs a sustainable fashion business.

'The young people learned a huge amount over the course of the week and were really inspired. I’ve had several young people telling me they want to be entrepreneurs and the parents asking what we did to get them so motivated!' Shofi Muhammod, Senior Youth Worker said.

A man speaking outside the British Library
Nigel Spencer, our Research and Business Manager, sharing advice on starting up a business in the Poet’s Circle

The HAF programme is just one of a range of activities we run to engage local people, many of which would not bepossible without our partners. A big thank you to Camden Council's Young Camden Foundation and King’s Cross Brunswick Neighbourhood Association, as well as our own curators, for making this happen. With the help of all our partners and supporters, we’ll keep opening up a world of ideas and inspiration for everyone, both in our own neighbourhood, and across the UK.

14 September 2021

British Library welcomes a special Afghan guest

Shazia Haya Ahmadzai is an Afghan journalist for the BBC’s Pashto service, who recently escaped from Kabul following its takeover by the Taliban. Shazia met our events producer Bee Rowlatt through a mutual colleague from BBC World Service, on the day she arrived in the UK from Kabul.

Bee invited Shazia to share her extraordinary experiences at the British Library, where she now has Membership and where she is speaking on Saturday 18 September as part of Jaipur Literature Festival’s one-day session for JLF London.

Shazia interviewing

Bee Rowlatt, British Library: Shazia, we are all very excited to welcome you on site, and now that you’re a British Library Member we hope to see you here regularly!

Shazia Haya Ahmadzai: I never imagined that one day I would be in the British Library. In Kabul there are no well-equipped libraries, that is why I did not go to the library in my lifetime. I just saw big libraries in movies, but you know books are the only things that bring me peace. I would like to spend my whole life reading books. I have heard about the British Library which is known all over the world and I even googled it, but I never imagined that one day I would be here. I hope it will bring me some peace and some community after what has happened.

Bee: Tell us about the last month

Shazia: Last month a storm came and destroyed everything, it destroyed life, dreams, and families. I reported the fall of the majority of the provinces. When Kabul fell and I saw insurgents on the roads, it was a dreadful moment. The next day, insurgents surrounded the building where I lived. The owner of the building came and told me that I should hide. I hid my work ID card in case the insurgents searched me. I cannot explain how scared I was, how my body shivered. I cannot forget those three or four nights that I did not sleep, that I hid in the kitchen.

On 21 August at 10pm I received a call and email that I should go to the airport. At 11pm I left my family alone, wore a burqa in the taxi and went to the airport entrance door which was closed by the insurgents. I begged an insurgent to let me in but he cursed me and shouted ‘go home or I will beat you!’ Finally, after an hour of walking along the side roads, I reached the entrance to Baron camp. I entered the camp by the same side road where a suicide bomber struck a few days later. I spent two nights and three days with a hungry stomach there but I am not complaining of those days in camp. It was the safest place for me.

Shazia presenting

Bee: And now that you are in the UK the hope is that you can carry on your work. How did you become a journalist in the first place?

Shazia: It was my dream to become a journalist but I grew up in a conservative family. A girl in my family couldn't appear on the screen, it was taboo. My brothers, uncles and father mentally tortured me and bullied me to quit my job. From the day I started as a journalist, I fought with family and with society for my rights. My father used to tell me, ‘do not tell anyone that you are my daughter because your work is a big shame for me’. Only my mother and my older sister supported me. That's why today I want to say that I, Shazia Haya, am the daughter of MY mother Zaibul Nesa and I am proud of it. No girl should experience the tough life which I did. But I started work with local media as a news presenter and after one year I got a job as a presenter of news talk shows, then I joined the BBC in 2019 as a reporter. In 2020 I was promoted to the senior team journalist of BBC Pashto TV. I want to share stories. I lived in a country where the people's voices could not be heard, especially women’s voices. I wanted to show that Afghan people's lives matter.

Bee: Talking of sharing people’s stories, what will you be talking about at JLF London on Saturday?

Shazia: I want to raise my voice this time. It is the first time I’m going to be speaking about myself, which is also the life of every Afghan girl and woman. As a journalist, I raise other people’s voices but now in the British Library, I will raise my own. I want to tell the world how much it hurts when in a minute, life, hopes, dreams are destroyed! I want to ask the world, do I or any Afghan girl deserve that miserable life?

Shazia and Suhail Shaheen of Taliban in Doha1

Bee: What are your hopes for your future?

I want to study and work because for these two rights I fought hard. I want to be a human rights activist in the future and help others, as today others are helping me! The day I arrived in Britain, I was given a new life. I am grateful to the British government for this gift.

Shazia Haya Ahmadzai will be taking part in Afghanistan: The Unravelling, a special event at the British Library as part of JLF London at 13.30–14.30, Saturday 18 September, with Saad Mohseni and Rory Stewart, in conversation with William Dalrymple. Tickets may be booked either to attend in person, or to watch on our platform (online) either live or within 48 hours on catch up.  

30 August 2021

Libraries (gradually) out of lockdown

While the pandemic has brought adversity, it has brought out the best in people too. The Libraries Under Lockdown episode of our podcast, Anything But Silent, highlighted three examples of this. We heard from the British Library team ensuring crucial documents were delivered to public health services, the Toronto Public Library, who exchanged books for food parcels, and a bridal studio, supported by our Business & IP Centre, which pivoted to ‘something new’ when the crisis hit.

Listen back to the episode here.

Inspired by these compelling stories, we spoke to Pam, Sabina and Jo to find out what happened next.

‘TPL really stepped up to serve the community. It really spoke to our Mission: “Toronto Public Library provides free and equitable access to services which meet the changing needs of Torontonians.” It just so happens that the “changing needs of Torontonians” during a pandemic require different approaches and different thinking to maximize the social infrastructure of public libraries.’

In May 2020 we found Pam Ryan and the Toronto Public Library system packing and delivering food hampers to households in need around the city. By the end of the year, library staff volunteers had distributed over 14,000 hampers to over 42,000 people. They also provided new, free books for children and teenagers of food bank clients – particularly welcome when access to physical library materials was limited.

One of TPL’s branches prepped for food bank service dayOne of TPL’s branches prepped for food bank service day

TPL’s central distribution hub repurposed as a food bank packing facility
TPL’s central distribution hub repurposed as a food bank packing facility

TPL’s involvement in the food bank programme has really cemented their position in the heart of communities. As Pam says in the podcast, ‘the best thing a library can be is open’. And Torontonians clearly agree – there has been a huge increase of people joining TPL as new customers since their gradual reopening from March this year.

‘I used this time, when time felt like it had completely stopped, to fast-track an idea I’d had….’

During the height of the UK’s first lockdown, Sabina Motasem used her expertise, staff and contacts from managing a busy bridal studio to produce scrubs for medical staff. Her Scrub Hub made just under 1400 scrubs for 20 hospitals, care homes and medical centres. Sabina also helped to project manage bulk-cutting thousands of PPE for Imperial Hospital through her production contacts.

Sabina talked in our podcast about her hopes that the world will emerge from Covid kinder, and more sustainable – and her own work on her bridal business has seen this come to fruition. When not running her Scrub Hub, or meeting brides virtually to discuss their wedding plans, Sabina has been working on an ethical ready-to-wear fashion range. ‘Every business will need to evolve and adapt to have sustainability at its heart, and every consumer will be expecting this too from every brand in the future. This pandemic has really raised awareness of the effect our modern lifestyles and fast-fashion are having on our planet and communities.’

A dress in Sabina’s new green collection, which launched in 2020
A dress in Sabina’s new green collection, which launched in 2020

She also started regularly donating specially made tops to several women’s charities and women’s refuges, including Smartworks. ‘For every single dress we make, all of the leftover and off-cut fabrics are being transformed into beautifully-made tops and masks from the beautiful plant silk and the couture silk too. They’re donated to marginalised women and in turn their communities who really need them. Our hope is women will love wearing our dresses, which not only reduces waste, it goes beyond and helps women and their communities too.’

Sabina, photographed by Elliot Wilcox
Sabina, photographed by Elliot Wilcox

‘I think the pandemic has made staff working for the Library appreciate how relevant the British Library is in the current world. Whether we were sat working from our kitchen table or scanning items on site I think we were all much more aware of the service we were providing than before.’

British Library On Demand in Boston Spa enables remote access to parts of the British Library’s collection via digitisation. Staff retrieve the requested collection item, digitise it, and send it out. But in lockdown, this wasn’t possible, so the team had to find new ways of working – particularly when it became clear that many of the documents being requested were being used in COVID-19 research by institutions like the NHS, PHE and NICE.

‘Having to think out of the box gave us an opportunity to provide more material, whether it was a manuscript or an online event, to a far wider audience than might previously have been aware of our services,’ explains Jo Cox, part of the team that kept the service going throughout the lockdowns.

As our physical spaces reopen in London and Yorkshire we’re still open for everyone online, with digital events, resources and access to our collection available wherever you are. Whether via pixels or IRL, we’re so excited to see you.

(And if you’d like to see what podcast host Cleo has been up to, she talks about her day job, alongside Exhibitions team colleague Susan, in this Behind the Scenes blog.)

You can listen to all episodes of Anything But Silent and the follow-up season accompanying our Unfinished Business exhibition at and on all the usual podcast platforms. Listen out for our third series coming in 2022.