Living Knowledge blog

10 March 2021

Towards an action plan on anti-racism

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In July 2020, the British Library committed to create and implement an approved anti-racism action plan, sponsored by our Chief Librarian, Liz Jolly.

The purpose of this blog is to update you: our users, readers, visitors, partners and online audiences, on how we are putting this commitment into practice.

Reflecting on the events of the summer of 2020, our Chief Executive, Roly Keating, said: “There have been incremental changes over the years, but this is a wake-up call for the Library’s leadership that it’s not enough. Our duty at this moment is to show humility, to listen, to learn and then to enact change”.

As co-chairs of the Anti-Racism Project – the group set up to produce the action plan – we are leading a piece of practical project work which we have taken care to ensure all colleagues across our two sites (in St Pancras, London and Boston Spa, West Yorkshire) have an ongoing opportunity to take part in. 

Structure of the Anti-Racism Project – involving our people

The term “anti-racism” is becoming more and more prevalent in conversations around tackling prejudice and inequality. We acknowledge that it can mean different things to different people, and we're still working out what exactly anti-racism means for the British Library, as we work towards producing an action plan.

But what we do know is that this work must improve the experience of all those who work at, use and enjoy the British Library. From the beginning we knew that to really achieve this, the anti-racism project had to take a “grassroots” approach, including the broadest possible range of experience and perspectives from across the whole of our diverse workforce.

Currently, there are approximately 90 colleagues involved, representing the sheer diversity of a national library. Colleagues in our People Team trained in HR practices, curators looking after our collections, conservators, Board Members, representatives from our BAME Staff Network and those in visitor-facing roles who engage with our users and audiences every day: these are just some of the perspectives informing the work we are doing to understand where we are and produce recommendations for positive and meaningful change for everyone.

It has taken us some months to structure this valuable cohort of enthusiasm and expertise into a properly governed structure. Working to established project management principles, the project contains a number of working subgroups, which will explore areas such as people and HR policies, collections and content, audiences, cataloguing, and values - all driven by evidence-based research steered by data and insight.  

As co-chairs, it’s our job to ensure that the project is a safe space for everyone involved - a forum which values all perspectives and experience equally. This ethos is important to us because it allows colleagues from different areas and levels of seniority to come together with openness and honesty, sparking new connections in a way that doesn’t always happen in the regular day to day work of the Library - especially during this time of working from home.

What’s next – learning our way towards change

Now that the project structure is in place, the real work is beginning. Our subgroups have begun an active phase of research and analysis towards understanding our current performance on a whole range of areas through the lens of anti-racism. These include:

  • How well we’re engaging with Black audiences through our cultural programme
  • The stories we choose to amplify through our collections and digital channels
  • Ethnic diversity in management roles and in our Senior Leadership Team 
  • Improving the experience of our physical spaces through thoughtful and balanced interpretations of the Library’s history based on Historic England’s principle of “retain and explain”
  • Looking at metadata attached to collection material acquired or catalogued during a time of colonialism and empire

The scope of what we’ll be looking at is by no means limited to the aspects above. Rather, it will be extremely wide-ranging, in line with our duties as a national and legal deposit library, as well our Living Knowledge: For Everyone strategy. It will involve conversations with different colleagues and teams across our workforce as well as with our peer organisations and, eventually, you, our audiences, to learn from others and understand how we can do better.

Following this research phase, the anti-racism project will come together and develop a set of recommendations for improvement. Once approved, these recommendations will become the basis of the British Library’s Anti-Racism Action Plan, which we look forward to sharing with you.

Our senior management team have marked out a period of three years to implement the Action Plan and of course, those years will require us to outgrow the project-style structure we’re currently working in. Everyone who works at and enjoys the Library will have a role to play in helping us on our journey towards positive change on anti-racism, and ultimately, towards becoming a national library that is truly, and consciously, for everyone.

Hugh Brown and T. Rajukumar

Co-Chairs of the Anti-Racism Project at the British Library