Living Knowledge blog

10 October 2021

Library Lives: Liz Jolly, British Library Boston Spa and St Pancras

‘When I was growing up, libraries were an escape into a whole world of imagination that I hadn’t known existed before.’

Concluding Libraries Week 2021, and part of our new series Library Lives, we speak to our Chief Librarian of the British Library, Liz Jolly about how libraries have changed and their role in improving people’s lives.

Where was your local library growing up?

My local library was Winchmore Hill public library in the borough of Enfield, Greater London. It was also the place I had my first Saturday job.

What’s your favourite thing to do in a library?

I think libraries are about learning, so my favourite thing is to learn with other people, and with an amazing variety of resources in all formats.

What’s your favourite library in the UK?

Manchester Central Library. I was a student there in the 1980s before university libraries were open at the weekend and I spent many Saturdays there. Actually, I spent many Saturdays there putting my books down and going off shopping in town! But I did also spend some time looking at the amazing domed ceiling and with its quotation, 'Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom; and with all thy getting, get understanding'.

Which library would you love to visit?

I’d really like to visit the Oodi, the new Central Library in Helsinki, Finland.

What three words would you choose to sum up being a librarian?

Facilitating, learning and communities.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I wanted to be a train driver.

What don’t people know about libraries?

I suspect that people think about libraries as being all about books. I think that libraries are about learning. The library academic David Lankes has written that ‘the mission of librarians is to facilitate knowledge creation in their communities’, and I think that this sums up what we’re about: far more than thinking just about collections, just about quiet spaces, and just about staff.

Libraries are where all these things interact and are very much about the people and the communities they serve.

What’s your favourite book?

My favourite book, which I’ve recently discovered, is The Street by Ann Petry. This tells the story of a Black single mother in New York in the 1940s.

Who is your favourite fictional librarian?

Serena Laburnam, heroine of The Librarian and the Robbers by Margaret Mahy. She's a fantastic role model. 

What did libraries mean to you growing up?

I grew up in a household that couldn’t afford books, so a library was a place where anyone could have access to books, so it was an escape into a whole world of imagination that I hadn’t known existed before.

As I got older and became interested in societal issues, libraries became somewhere for me that would enable people to learn, both in terms of academic success and learning to ‘be’ - in the Carl Rogers sense. For me they became a key element in creating a more just, fair and equal society.

How have things changed in libraries since you qualified?

Things have changed dramatically. When I qualified in 1990, libraries were very much seen as places where one went to do quiet, silent, individual study and librarians were gatekeepers of information and knowledge.

I think it was assumed, particularly in the higher education sector where my background is, that people learnt in a certain way, which was silent, individual study. Over the past 30 years I think research has proved that learning happens in multiple ways and that libraries need to reflect that in the way that they are designed, in the spaces that they provide, and in the way that staff interact with their communities.

Interview by Ellen Morgan / Hannah Gabrielle

We spoke to people who have professional registration status as a librarian via the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals or who have an academic qualification such as a first degree, a postgraduate diploma or a Master’s degree in library and information studies or librarianship.

Is this you? If you’d like to feature in Library Lives, get in touch with

Would you like this to be you? Find out more about becoming a librarian on the CILIP website