Living Knowledge blog

08 October 2021

Library Lives: Sally Halper, British Library St Pancras

‘It’s the joy of helping people to find answers to their questions. Not just giving them the answer, but enabling them to find the information for themselves.’

Continuing our Libraries Week launch of our new series, Library Lives, we meet Sally Halper, qualified librarian and Head of Content Strategy and Services at the British Library.

Where was your local library growing up?

My local library was in Leeds. It was the old branch library in Headingley, which was called Bennett Road library, and it was amazing. It was like a TARDIS, because it was actually quite a small building but on the inside it seemed much bigger, and it had an element of Hogwarts because it had lots of high shelves and tons and tons of books. It’s been replaced now with something more modern and bright and airy, which I also loved.

Why did you want to become a librarian?

My first work experience, when I was 16, was at Leeds Central Lending Library and that experience working for a month at the lending desk was so much fun and so interesting. I particularly enjoyed dealing with the public – they could come in and ask you literally anything and being able to help them to find the answers to their questions just really set me off on a path of loving libraries.

What does your current job involve?

I lead the development of the Library’s contemporary content strategy, which covers everything that’s been published since 1945, and I commission user research to help inform our strategy.

Do you have a favourite item in the Library’s collection?

That’s really hard to answer where there are so many millions of items in the collection! But for me it has to be our remote access content – that’s digital content that our Readers and other customers can access from outside the building. Over the last 18 months that has been so important, during lockdown.

Do you have a favourite or unexpected enquiry that you’ve helped someone with?

In my early days working at the British Library, I helped to answer an enquiry about chemical formulae for ancient perfumes for a gentleman was looking to restart his grandfather’s business, which had been a big manufacturer of perfumes here in the UK. It was a fascinating enquiry to work on, partly because of his enthusiasm and because it was for a business start-up. I have a background in business and management, so that’s something that I care a lot about.

What's your favourite thing that you can do in a library?

It’s the joy of helping people to find answers to their questions. Not just giving them the answer, but enabling them to find the information for themselves. Working directly with the public and getting to the end of that journey with them and seeing how pleased they are with the end result.

What do you think makes a good librarian?

Patience. Not leaping in and trying to answer a patron’s question without asking a few more questions first, to properly understand what they need. And having a great knowledge of all the different resources available.

How have things changed in libraries since you qualified?

I qualified as a chartered librarian in 2008. Since then the main change has been, obviously, technological. The scale and complexity of the different publications we now deal with has been the biggest change. It’s a really positive thing though, as it provides access for people without them having to travel. It’s a positive and liberating change.

What one thing do you wish people knew about libraries or being a librarian that you suspect they don’t?

It’s not actually all about the books – it’s much more about working with people, and helping people to achieve what they’re trying to do.

Favourite fictional librarian?

Yes – the librarian in The Dragon in the Library by Louie Stowell. Her name is Faith and she is the head librarian in a public library and she is amazing. She is young, trendy, and has magical powers and a dragon living in the basement.

Can you give us a book recommendation?

Libraries: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles. It’s quite a short book, which is in its favour! It’s about the history of libraries and their place in human society. It’s quite controversial in places. I certainly don’t agree with everything in it, but I do think it’s an interesting way of looking at the role of libraries as actually quite subversive things.

Interview by Ellen Morgan

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 ellen.morgan@bl.uk

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

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