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Behind the scenes at the British Library


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04 May 2021

Behind the scenes at the British Library: Alexa McNaught-Reynolds, Conservation Exhibition and Loan Manager, Zoë Miller, Conservation Team Leader and Amy Baldwin, Book Conservator

Our Collection Care team are responsible for protecting and preserving our vast collections and enabling their use, experience and interpretation. We caught up with three members of the team to find out about their work, their favourite collection items and what they’re missing about the Library during lockdown.

Tell me about your role?

Amy Baldwin, Book Conservator

Amy: I’m a Book Conservator. My job involves carrying our repair treatments to books (and sometimes maps, scrolls and other 3D items) readers have requested from the collection or that are being loaned to another organisation. I also carry out conservation work to prepare items for digitisation. When we’re open to visitors I also deliver studio tours and training courses.

Alexa McNaught-Reynolds, Conservation Exhibition and Loan Manager

Alexa: As Conservation Exhibition and Loan Manager I work closely with curators, loans registry and the wider Conservation team to prepare objects for exhibitions. This includes carrying out repairs, mounting and framing and helping with the installation process. I’ve reviewed all the collection items for our forthcoming Elizabeth & Mary exhibition. I spend a lot of my day buzzing around the storage and conservation areas of the Library discussing items, assessing their condition and suitability for display.

As well as our own exhibitions, I also look after the conservation of items going on loan to different institutions across England and internationally. I’m responsible for assessing not only the condition but also an object’s vulnerability to light, which I monitor very closely, and will recommend maximum exposure limits for each item. Due to the extensive exhibition and loan program, we tend to limit conservation work to ten hours per item. Anything requiring more treatment is suggested to go through the conservation bidding program. Due to the tight deadlines for exhibitions, the object might not be suitable for display.

Zoë Miller, Conservation Team Leader

Zoë: I am a Conservation Team Leader and manage a team of eight including our intern. I work with curators to discuss the treatment options for different items and make conservation recommendations and then give work to team members according to their skills and experience. I also identify staff training needs. I’m also involved with Icon, the professional body that looks after apprenticeships, training and accreditation for the industry.

How has Covid-19 changed the way you work?

Zoë: We’re usually all based in our Centre for Conservation, a purpose-built open plan workspace where we can work on treatments. We often pop over to visit curators in various storage areas around the building to discuss their objects. Covid has profoundly affected us as we don’t have access to collection items or our tools. Also, with the way we work at our workbenches it’s hard to social distance from colleagues. We’ve used lockdown to focus on research projects, examine our protocols and decision-making processes. We’ve also been talking to curators to improve decision-making for our programmes of work – it’s been an opportunity to meet new colleagues. But I can’t wait to get back to handling the collections, we’re crafty hands-on people.

Amy: I’ve been using this time to do more outreach activity such as writing Collection Care blog posts and delivering conservation training online. I really miss working collaboratively with colleagues, bouncing ideas off each other.

Alexa: Lockdown has meant that lots of exhibitions have been postponed or even cancelled. We have used this time to review and update our standard operating procedures and provided training sessions to conservation staff on the different streams of exhibition processes.

How did you get into this field?

Amy: I used to work as a Teaching Assistant and volunteered in conservation at UCL Library during the school holidays. I loved it so much I changed careers. I’ve been doing this for ten years now.

Alexa: My mum is a curator at the National Museum of Australia. I did some work experience there when I was 16 and was hooked!

Zoë: I studied sculpture at UAL: Central St Martin’s and became interested in how damage to materials tells a story. I then did a Masters degree at UAL: Camberwell College of Arts and started working at the Library 16 years ago.

What have you been working on recently?

Alexa: I have been preparing a loan for Hampton Court Palace. Their exhibition Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King includes our collection items from the era of Henry VIII.

Zoë: I have been doing some research into iron gall ink, a historic brown ink.

Amy: I’ve been working on the Thomason collection of tracts, little pamphlets linked to the Civil War. These are historically bound in leather but have been heavily used. I’m repairing the paper and the bindings. These are popular items so it’s nice to be able to make them available again to Readers.

Amy’s work on the Thomason TractsAmy’s work on the Thomason Tracts

What do you love about the Library?

Alexa: I love our studio and our team with its diverse specialisms and interests.

Zoë: For me it’s the rich depth of specialist knowledge and expertise, particularly from our curators. And I love the way we impart that knowledge in so many ways to our audiences.

Amy: I love the vibrancy and the rich programme of exhibitions. The public areas are always bustling and there’s a sense that people really enjoy visiting.

What’s your favourite object in the collection?

Ripley scroll, Sloane MS 2523B is over five metres long. This is an image of one small sectionRipley scroll, Sloane MS 2523B is over five metres long. This is an image of one small section.

Alexa: I get to see so much of the collection, picking one is hard! I enjoyed working with the Ripley Scrolls that was featured in the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition. We have three or four versions of this with varying amounts of colour in them. They are a fascinating story around the making of the Philosopher’s Stone.

Image of the Cotton Cleopatra manuscript being worked on in studioImage of the Cotton Cleopatra manuscript being worked on in studio

Zoë: Something that’s dear to me is the Cotton Cleopatra manuscript that relates to the dissolution of the monastery. There are letters from Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn, and Henry VIII’s correspondence showing his corrections to the terms of marriage. Also Elizabeth I’s iconic Tilbury speech to the men at the docks and its famous lines about being a female reigning monarch. It’s very fragile and I noticed how much the ink had deteriorated since it was photographed for a book. The moisture in the air had caused the paper to deteriorate.

The Tilbury Speech (before conservation)The Tilbury Speech (before conservation)

Amy: My favourite item is a 13th-century illuminated bestiary. The animal pictures are very beautiful but also very funny, especially one of an owl with a disturbingly human face.

Owl mobbed by smaller birds, Harley 4751, f.47 – Amy’s favourite collection itemOwl mobbed by smaller birds, Harley 4751, f.47 – Amy’s favourite collection item

Any book recommendations for our readers?

Alexa: I’m a fan of historical fiction, particularly Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth series.

Amy: My favourite book is also a work of historical fiction, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, set in a medieval library.

Zoë: I’m currently reading The Mother of All Jobs: How to Have Children and a Career and Stay Sane(ish) by Christine Armstrong. It’s about women in the workplace and is so relevant with what’s happening with home-schooling due to Covid.

Go behind the scenes with our conservators via our Collection Care blog

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09 April 2021

Meet the Maker: Claudine O'Sullivan

In this monthly Meet the Maker blog series we meet award-winning artist Claudine O’Sullivan, designer of our Children’s Tales range. Her distinctive nature-inspired hand-drawn illustrations have attracted industry attention and resulted in collaborations with established brands such as Twitter, MTV, Island Records, WeTransfer, Tiger Beer and Derwent Pencils.

We commissioned Claudine to refresh and revamp the children’s range in our shop ahead of the Marvellous and Mischievous exhibition. Her brief was to illustrate a repeat pattern inspired by children’s stories that stand the test of time. Her illustrations, using recognisable imagery from children’s stories, were applied to a range of products including notebooks, jigsaw puzzles and cushions. Look closely and you will spot a frog prince, the crocodile from Peter Pan, the tiger (Who Came to Tea) and many more.

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Claudine’s latest heron design

She says: ‘This was my first project after maternity leave. It was really well-timed as I’d been immersed in children’s books. It’s been so special to do the puzzles with my daughter and she has the cushions in her room. This range is like a time capsule for my family.’

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Claudine  creates bold, colourful nature-inspired prints, all designed using coloured pencil. Her graphic designer at the University of Arts, London advised her to forget about trying to follow a particular style – instead Claudine picks up a pencil with no real plan and just sketches what she feels.

'My process is purely observational drawing and I am obsessed with the natural world. My most recent design is a river heron I spotted during lockdown on my daily walk with my daughter.'

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Claudine and her husband both work from home and juggle parenting and work. As well as a never-ending list of personal projects and print ideas Claudine has recently worked on an exciting collaboration with John Lewis and Derwent Pencils encouraging people to design their own wrapping paper.

Charlotte Wainwright, British Library Shop Buyer, added: 'We loved Claudine’s illustrations so much we added a memory game and an extra cushion to the range. Her designs also inspired the other products in our children’s range such as books, Little Red Riding Hood dominoes and even a plush elephant.'

Tote Bag 1000px

Children's Tales tote bag

In addition to brand partnerships, Claudine also sells prints directly via her website. Her advice for makers and designers starting out with their own small business is to stick with it: 'I built my business whilst working full time, it's exhausting and nerve wracking but save, save, save and when you have a cushion of savings – go for it full time.'

Browse the Children’s Tales range

Visit Claudine’s website

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29 March 2021

Behind the scenes at the British Library: Amber Perrier, Community Engagement Officer

In our monthly blog series we go behind the scenes at the Library to introduce you to our people and the many ways they work to bring our collection to everyone. Today we meet Amber Perrier, Community Engagement Officer.

Amber Perrier image

I work with our local St Pancras community, especially often overlooked groups. It’s grass roots engagement connecting us with our neighbours.”

Tell us about your role?

Amber is our Community Engagement Officer, tasked with engaging our hyper-local community with the British Library in St Pancras, London. Her ‘patch’ includes Somers Town, King’s Cross, Bloomsbury, the Regents Park Estate and other parts of the London Borough of Camden.

She organises ‘show and tell’ displays and tours with curators and represents us at local festivals as such as the Somers Town Festival, Camden Bangladesh Mela and Hillview Festival.

Amber at workAmber setting up the community stall at the Hillview festival with dolly pegs created by local organisations from Somers Town.

She works closely with our Welcome Team and Events and Learning Teams to encourage local families to use the British Library, helping adults register for reader passes and connecting local entrepreneurs with our Business and IP Centre.

Amber at work show and tellAn Ethiopian collection show and tell with members of the local St Pancras community, organised by Amber. 

Her outreach activity also involves popping into Somali and Bangladeshi community centres to chat to people about our services and local projects such as St Pancras Transformed which may have an impact on residents.

One of my favourite projects is The Story Garden, it’s a community garden and is open to everyone. As well as growing crops, we’ve run therapeutic arts and crafts events in the polytunnels, and provided a make space for St Martin’s students.

Story Garden

The Story Garden (2019)

How did you get into this field?

Amber joined us four years ago on a placement under the Culture& traineeship programme, which aims to increase workforce diversity in the heritage sector. During her one-year traineeship she shadowed Library colleagues in Conservation, Basements and the Asian and African Collections and paid reciprocal visits to her cohort at the British Museum and the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.

At the end of the programme, she had gained a QCF Level 3 qualification in Cultural Heritage and secured a permanent role as a Community Engagement Assistant at the Library – and since been promoted to an Officer position.

I’d already established relationships with the local community and it was good to continue building these bridges.”

Prior to joining the Library, Amber studied Fine Art at the University of East London and volunteered with community arts organisation Rosetta Arts in Newham.

How has Covid-19 changed the way you work?

With all in-person community engagement activities suspended in 2020-21, Amber has worked hard to keep in touch virtually with local groups.

“I’ve supported webinar presentations and online consultations and have shared job opportunities and events via social media. I’ve also been involved with signposting community organisations’ support services such as food banks as the pandemic hit some local community groups hard.”

What do you love about the Library?

Amber’s job involves meeting lots of people, both staff and local residents. She has been impressed by the hidden skills and interests of the people she meets and has enjoyed chatting to people about her art.

“As an artist I love spending my lunchbreak sketching in the Piazza and chilling out in the Poet’s Circle.”

She was commissioned to design the Somers Town Big Local tote bag off the back of winning a Notting Hill Carnival T-shirt design competition.

Somers Town Big Loal illustration by Amber

Commission for Somers Town tote, illustration by Amber Perrier.  

Notting Hill Carnival t-shirt 2019 illustration

Amber's Notting Hill Carnival T-shirt competition-winning design 

What’s your favourite object in the collection?

Amber’s first ‘show and tell’ featured items from our Ethiopian Collections and she became infatuated with the colours and gold in the manuscripts. A particular favourite is Nagara Māryām / History of Mary featured in this blog.

Ethiopian collection item

Nagara Māryām / History of Mary, Ethiopia, 18th century. Or 607, f 17r

“I also love looking at the old mags from Newham where I grew up in the East End.”

Any insider tips about the St Pancras area?

Amber normally spends a lot of time out and about in St Pancras meeting local groups. She recommends visiting The Story Garden, a temporary garden shaped by and for the local community and developed in response to feedback on our transformation plans for the Library.

“It’s very therapeutic and you can take the time out to enjoy the botanical atmosphere.”

Any book recommendations for our readers?

Amber recommends All on the Board written by two TFL underground employees. They started creating their famous quote boards anonymously as a side hustle to their day job as station support staff.

“I’ve been dipping in and out of it during lockdown and it’s been a great pick-me-up. It really lifts my spirits!”

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