Knowledge Matters blog

28 June 2018

Parting words from our Chief Librarian

Caroline Brazier. Photo by Sophia Chrisafis

Caroline Brazier is the Chief Librarian at the British Library. She was recently awarded a CBE in Her Majesty The Queen’s 2018 Birthday Honours in recognition of her services to librarianship over a 35-year career.

After 16 years here, Caroline will be retiring at the end of the month. We caught up with her to find out more about her highlights here, her insights on libraries and her hopes for the British Library.

How did you come to be Chief Librarian at the British Library?

I’ve worked in libraries my entire career. For me, the Chief Librarian’s role has been a culmination of the many different types of library roles and responsibilities I’ve held. I always say it’s the best library job in the country, if not in the world.

I joined the British Library in 2002 as the Head of Collection Acquisitions and Description, spending the first eight years here in our Boston Spa site, in Yorkshire, working in a variety of different roles. Then in 2011 I moved to St Pancras as the Director of Scholarship and Collections which was later expanded into the new role of Chief Librarian in 2016.

As Chief Librarian, what do you do?

I look after the functions, the roles and the responsibilities that relate to our core library services and functions. That would be everything to do with the collection and the people who manage it– for example the curatorial departments and collection management – and also the strategy and the development of many of our services.

The British Library is part of both a national and international library infrastructure so I also work with other academic libraries, research libraries, public libraries and other national libraries around the world.

NPLDCaroline Brazier (top image by Sophia Chrisafis) considers the passing of digital legal deposit to be one of the highlights of her career at the Library. After a decade of discussions, regulations enabling the collection of non-print materials (above) were passed in 2013.

What have been some of your highlights here?

The introduction of getting the right to collect digital legal deposit – it represents a seismic shift in what we can do to collect and develop the national memory and will shape the future of this organisation for decades and centuries to come.

The Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 was passed shortly after I joined and I’ve represented the Library in quite a lot of legal deposit discussions over the last ten years. We were able to start collecting digital legal deposit in 2013 and a five-year review has just been completed. In a way, digital legal deposit feels like it bookends my career here.

The other amazing thing I’ve seen is the growth of our learning programme from a tiny base to a phenomenal and high quality service. Our online learning resources also form a very important channel as the website gives us unlimited potential to reach out to people in a new way. And that applies to research audiences as well as to learning audiences. We’re looking at Heritage Made Digital, a major development that will make sure that our heritage research content will be discoverable, searchable and usable by people around the globe rather than just by people who can travel to our Reading Rooms.

What is your favourite library memory?

It’s the people and the community I’ve worked with through the years. At the moment I’m looking at my email archives and coming across messages from people who left maybe 10 or 15 years ago. I’m reminded of the great people I’ve worked with and the generations of people who’ve passed through this place and have been so dedicated to the Library.

Any ‘wow’ moments when encountering collection items?

Seeing Jane Austen’s handwriting was probably my most ‘wow’ moment. I’ve been reading her work since I was 14 and I’ve just always loved the stories. Knowing that there’s so little left of her own writing, when you actually see something in her hand, you feel you’re in the presence of something really special and you just go ‘Wow, that’s Jane Austen’.

Jane Austen 'VOLUME THE THIRD' notebook containing Evelyn and Catharine  or the Bower  6 May 1792-19 Aug 1809 (Add MS 65381)Jane Austen manuscript notebook from 6 May 1792-19 Aug 1809 (Add MS 65381) - one of the 'wow factors' of working at the Library.

Another moment was when the Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination exhibition opened. I remember going into the gallery and experiencing this amazing vista of some of the most beautiful objects I think I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s a reminder that in this collection we have some amazingly beautiful items and also historically incredibly important ones too, and that we have the obligation to preserve and to protect the collection so that people will also have those experiences 100 years or 200 years from now.

What would you like your legacy to be?

As a memory institution, we have to make sure that the collection grows and develops in a way that not only meets the needs of today’s generations, but of future generations.

What I hope I’ve left behind are groups of people who are clear about how we should be building the collection, both in terms of what we collect, but also how we collect it. It’s not just enough to have the collection – you have to make sure that people can find out what you have and how to access it. A strategy for developing both the collection and the services that go with them. That’s ultimately what I’ve been here for.

Royal-MSS-exbn"Some of the most beautiful objects I think I’ve ever seen in my life" the Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination exhibition. Photo by Tony Antoniou.

Why do you think libraries matter?

Libraries are an important part of our democracy, an important part of our social fabric. Libraries are the way to ensure that people who would otherwise be information poor have equal access to information. We all need information to have happy, successful lives – it could be information that’s life changing or what time the next bus is. For people to be empowered they need information and I think that to me is why libraries matter.

What are the biggest challenges facing libraries today?

You hear people asking: are libraries even relevant anymore because surely everyone can get everything they need from the Internet?

Libraries provide their users with the staff and people with the skills and knowledge to help them navigate the world of information. As the way people get information changes and shifts, libraries need to remain visible and trusted. There’s a marketing job for libraries to do to make sure people see them as neutral, that the services provided are high quality and that there’s an ethical underpinning to our work which means that people can trust libraries.

What’s next for you?

I’m looking forward to being on the other side of the desk, becoming a Library user and using libraries and collections, rather than having to manage them. And having time to pursue personal research, interests and hobbies. Perhaps write a book!

What will you miss the most?

The people, the friendships and the camaraderie. I will miss the fun of coming into work every day. I’ll miss the jokes and the tea breaks and I’ll miss the corridor conversations. I will miss being part of a community.

Thank you Caroline for sharing your highlights and insights. We will miss you too.

Shimei Zhou

Content and Community Team