Living Knowledge blog

4 posts from May 2021

28 May 2021

Making two million images freely available online

Ten years ago the British Library and the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development started exploring possible areas of collaboration. For some time the British Library had been working on an international engagement strategy to make our collections more accessible in partnership with other organisations.

Fast forward to 2021, and our partnership with the Qatar Foundation and Qatar National Library has gone from strength to strength, this week hitting the major milestone of making our two millionth image freely available online via the Qatar Digital Library.

Under the British Library’s Living Knowledge strategy we have sought new partnerships and collaborations, particularly when it comes to digitisation and digital scholarship.  Our aim is to open up the collections to a global audience and the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership is a prime example of this endeavour.


Camera view during photogrammetry creation of Astrolabe on QDL by Jordi Clopes-Masjuan.

Two million images is a nice round number, but as soon as you stop to consider how much work it is to make available such a vast amount of content, it is even more impressive - even by national library standards, it is a lot of content.

Thousands of files, manuscripts and maps have been brought up from the Library’s basements through dozens of different workflow stages in order to make them available online. Every item is checked by conservators, catalogued by archivists and content specialists, and returned by our Library Assistants. Every one of the two million pages has been foliated, copyright cleared, scanned or photographed, quality checked, processed and uploaded. A new enhanced catalogue record for every item is created and then translated into Arabic, so that the QDL is a truly bilingual resource, transforming access to these collections for researchers in the Gulf, and indeed for users around the world.


A collection item undergoing conservation treatment, with information added as part of a Hack Day (Photo: Imaging Services)

A key part of the online resource is not only making high-quality images and catalogues available, but contextualising the collections in an engaging way. Over the past year during several lockdowns the partnership team have been unable to work on the collections directly as they normally would, however, they have pivoted to working remotely, in many cases working creatively to open up and highlight the fascinating collections that we continue to make available.


Screenshot of the Bitsy Game created by Ellis Meade of the Qatar National Library

Colleagues have produced new and innovative ways into the collections through ‘hack days’, including making games and mosaics, as well as adding to the over 170 Expert Articles that are available. These pieces cover topics from introductory articles on Arabic Manuscripts at the British Library to Pivotal Moment in Qatar’s History through the collections.


Mosaic of the Qatar Digital Library homepage by Laura Parsons

Please do explore this amazing resource, and tell us about it through our Twitter feed: @BLQatar.


Richard Davies

Head of Collection Programmes and the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership



25 May 2021

An interview with Antony Gormley

The open space to the front of the St Pancras British Library building, known as the Piazza, is home to a number of artworks by seminal British artists, including two by sculptor Antony Gormley. 

Antony Gormley © Oak Taylor-Smith
Antony Gormley © Oak Taylor-Smith

Sir Antony Gormley, OBE, is a British sculptor best known for the Angel of the North. Jo in our Digital Engagement team spoke to him about his love of the British Library and the inspiration behind Planets and Witness, his works at our St Pancras site.

'The magic of the British Library is the way its utilitarian reserve is countered by the great battery of leatherbound books at its core. I love the idea that what is visible above ground is a small part of that which is buried below it.'

Tell us about yourself and your work

I live in a way in which work and play, if not synonymous, are woven into one another.

I like to work alone and I also like to work in company. I like to have many pots simmering. When I started, I made work on my own or with Vicken Parsons, who became my wife.

Increasingly, I began to work with others, and this became normal after the building of the studio in King’s Cross. 25 assistants work with me in London and 20 in Hexham. There is an organic culture in studio life. I really love this creative community, drawn together through the work we make together and I’m proud to say that without them, I now couldn’t do much.

All the work comes from me – literally me – standing naked in a darkened room, being scanned, or asking somebody to translate a small drawing from my Muji notebook, but the life of the studio is actually a place of collaboration and critique: a work passes through my hands and eyes as well as others, before leaving. I love the sense of things literally bubbling up out of the interaction with people, and of people with stuff.

My work comes out of life – and life, hopefully, is the receiver of it. Each work is the mother of the next work. I want to make art that is about awareness, alertness, aliveness and hopefully, it can produce those affects in those who experience it.

How did your work with the British Library come about?

I became involved with the Library through the competition for Poet's Circle. Through it I came to know and become friends with Sandy Wilson [the architect of our building in St Pancras]. He was an amazing and charming person, ever young, always seeking new inspiration and new ideas. He was open minded, grand, yet friendly.

Construction of Poet’s Circle in St Pancras  1993
Construction of Poet’s Circle in St Pancras, 1993

What do you love about the British Library?

I still think that the magic of the British Library is the way its utilitarian reserve is countered by the great battery of leatherbound books at its core, and the extraordinary volume and silence of the Reading Rooms. I love the idea that what is visible above ground is a small part of that which is buried below it. We now have the entire history of human knowledge accessible in the Cloud, but the British Library is a necessary objective correlative.

The Library materialises the sedimentation of knowledge. It is precious, as all libraries are precious. The decision to move the library from the round Reading Room of the British Museum to St Pancras, was important. It represented our wish for cultural continuity and evolution.

The British Library is privileged to have two of your works on display at our St Pancras site. Tell us about them.

I was very honoured to be asked to make a permanent work for the courtyard. I tried to complement its concentration on the word by celebrating something about human touch and our dependency on the palpable, material world. It was an adventure to find the eight granite stones formed through Pleistocene glaciations and a joy to see them embraced by living bodies as an acknowledgement of the Anthropocene. Planets was the result.

Close up of Planets by Antony Gormley
Close up of Planets by Antony Gormley


Planets by Antony Gormley at the British Library
Planets by Antony Gormley at the British Library

 A few years later, it was wonderful to be asked to make a work in acknowledgement of the brave writers who have witnessed political injustice and who had themselves suffered for speaking truth to power. Witness (commissioned by English PEN to mark their 90th anniversary) is an invitation for us to think of those who fight for freedom of speech and therefore put themselves at risk. I think of it as a solid foundation for the act of witness. A place to be silent and still.

Antony Gormley with his work Witness at the British Library
Antony Gormley with his work Witness at the British Library 

How has Covid-19 changed the way you work?

Working in pandemic conditions since March 2020 has been difficult but rewarding. The ever-present deadlines for exhibitions have now been replaced by an ability to evolve and interrogate the work while living with it. There is time to listen to what the work wants us to do. We have been evolving forms that chart the body as space and evolving proposals that will invite viewers to be participants in the in animation of space.

Antony’s studio currently have their collective fingers crossed that nothing will now come between them and exhibition openings at the National Gallery of Singapore and Schauwerk Sindelfingen this summer.

And finally, what do you love about libraries?

Libraries are special places. Their atmosphere is made by the feeling of readers connecting with the insights and research of other minds from other times and places and making something new out of them.

It's been a long time since I enjoyed this feeling of doing research at university libraries in Cambridge and London: combing through the card files, identifying the books that I needed, which would then arrive at my work desk and create that special campsite of books around me that helped to make an idea, a proposition, a way of interpreting.

Libraries are precious oases of creative continuity.

Find out more about Planets

Find out more about Witness

Visit Antony Gormley’s website

In 2002, the British Library commissioned the now Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, to write a poem to mark the unveiling of Antony Gormley's sculpture, Planets.

Listen to Simon Armitage read Entrance   


For comparison’s sake, imagine these rocks
as ova thrown from the core, as the eggs

of the Earth, rolled and revolved by time,
nagged at by air then suspended in ice

and shunted westwards in the general flow
at the pace of knowledge – glacially slow.

It’s lunchtime now, with sunlight lazing
on benches and quarried slabs, re-glazing

the Library doors. So exit the vault
of gilded words, leave the bullion of rare thoughts

and enter the dial of privacy,
the captured orbit of privet and brick

where the eight eggs of the Earth fetched up
after billions of hours, each one now etched

with a halfway-visible human form.
And yet these bodies are neither hatched nor born;

look closely – they seem to be clinging on
with gecko fingers and toes, or climbing in –

shouldering, burrowing, tunnelling through
to the inside, showing the way, as though

by doing the same we might follow them home.
They circle us, turning our minds to stone.


Simon Armitage






11 May 2021

Reconnecting Oceanic communities with previously inaccessible cultural materials

True Echoes is a research project centred on the British Library’s Oceanic wax cylinder collections, led by Isobel Clouter of the World and Traditional Music section.  These wax cylinders (an early medium for recording and reproducing sound) were recorded by British anthropologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Australia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. They represent some of the earliest recordings of Oceanic oral traditions, and include music, stories, speeches and many different types of songs, including hunting songs, hymns, funeral dirges and lullabies. They are a unique representation of the cultural histories of the people of this region.

Charles Myers recording songs with Ulai and Gasu on Murray Island / Mer, Torres Strait, in 1898. Image courtesy of University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology N.23209.ACH2.
Charles Myers recording songs with Ulai and Gasu on Murray Island / Mer, Torres Strait, in 1898. Image courtesy of University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology N.23209.ACH2.

The project’s aims are twofold: to increase the recordings’ visibility and accessibility for people living in the areas in which they were made, and to enhance understanding of the collection through local knowledge and cultural memory in partnership with seven Oceanic cultural institutions.

For the Papua New Guinea collections, Research Fellow Vicky Barnecutt has been working closely with Don Niles, Acting Director of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, on the historical research. They liaised with other researchers and institutions, and gathered all the information they could find about the recordings, the recording contexts, and the subsequent histories of the cylinders. They have created comprehensive research documents, including photographs, maps and metadata, to be used as a basis for the planned participatory research.

Due to the current restrictions on international travel, this research is taking place online. Research Fellow Rebekah Hayes has co-ordinated the launch of the project’s website,, which will share the project’s research findings. Originally planned for the end of the project, its creation was brought forward so that it can act as a valuable tool during participatory research. So far, one collection has been made publically available on the website.  You can find out more at and on the Sound and Vision blog.

True Echoes is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).