Living Knowledge blog

8 posts from October 2021

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.

07 October 2021

Library Lives: Thurstan Young, British Library Boston Spa

‘Whilst politics, history and culture can often divide people, the sharing of knowledge has the capacity to transcend boundaries.’

Continuing our Libraries Week launch of our new series, Library Lives, we meet Thurstan Young, qualified librarian and Collection Metadata Analyst in the Collection Metadata Standards team at Boston Spa.

Thurstan picThurstan Young

Where was your local library growing up?

Horsforth Public Library, which is just north of Leeds. It used to have a tree growing in the middle of it towards a glass roof. As a child it felt like a light and airy, nature friendly space. 

What does your current job involve?

Metadata is data which provides information about other data. For example, descriptive metadata can be used to support the discovery and identification of a resource within a library catalogue. It includes elements for recording titles, authors, publishers, etc. My current job involves metadata standards application, interpretation, communication and development. I support the application of metadata standards at the British Library as well as their development in cooperation with national and international partners.

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

Vladimir Il'ich Lenin’s Reader request to study the Russian ‘land question’ at the British Museum (submitted under the pseudonym ‘Jakob Richter’ in 1902). I love the fact that a single sheet of writing paper holds so many implications for the course of 20th-century history.

RRILetter from Lenin (Add. MS.54579.)

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

I began working at the British Library in retrieval. This involved responding to Reading Room, loan, fax and photocopy requests from Library customers. Soon after I joined I remember dealing with an item request from an academic institution based in Iran. It struck me that the British Library had a truly global reach in terms of the service it provides. It also struck me that, whilst politics, history and culture can often divide people, the sharing of knowledge has the capacity to transcend boundaries.

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

I can’t narrow it down to one thing. The best I can do is five: read, listen, watch, learn, escape. 

Where's your favourite library, or one you would most like to visit?

I’ve been lucky enough to visit a number of national libraries overseas. However, I haven’t made it to the Vatican Library yet. I’d like to visit that at some point.

Can you sum up being a librarian in three words?

Exciting. Intriguing. Challenging.

What do you think makes a good librarian?

A willingness to learn, an interest in helping the public and an eye for detail.

Tell us something about yourself that has nothing to do with your job

I enjoy birdwatching. Interacting with nature appeals to me because nothing is guaranteed and so there’s always an opportunity for surprise. The most beautiful animals can appear in the most mundane places (like a goldcrest outside a postal depot).

Favourite fictional librarian?

Zoe Heriot in the British science fiction television series Doctor Who. She makes her first appearance in a story entitled ‘The Wheel in Space’. If I had the chance to work as a librarian on a space station, then I’d definitely be up for that. I’m not so keen on being menaced by the cybermen though.

Can you give us a book recommendation?

Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving.

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.

06 October 2021

Library Lives: Hedley Sutton, British Library St Pancras

‘Favourite thing that you can do in a library? Stumbling across something that means a great deal to you, that you would never dream existed.’

Continuing our Libraries Week launch of our new series, Library Lives, we meet Hedley Sutton, qualified librarian and Reference Team Leader in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room.

Where was your local library growing up?

I grew up in a small town in Lancashire, and my local library was Bury Public Library.

What does your current job involve?

I manage and am part of the small team that provides the front of house enquiry desk service in the Reading Room, and fields enquiries that come in remotely, mostly via email, from all over the world.

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

This is unsurprisingly a difficult question to answer! But I do have one – it’s a very strange item: it’s The Necronomicon. The American writer H P Lovecraft’s tales involve mention of an ancient manuscript, which can be used as a spell to summon spirits from other worlds to earth. Some fans of Lovecraft thought it would be a good wheeze to pretend that this book really existed, so they produced a facsimile edition of this ‘ancient manuscript’. Because the supposed original script came from Mesopotamia / Iraq, within the Library the copy we have was thought to properly ‘belong’ to Asian and African Studies, rather than in, say, the general humanities collection. If and when Readers ask for a translation – as has happened – that’s when we have to tell them it’s all just meaningless scribble. And, in fact, the same meaningless scribble gets repeated every 16 pages!

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

Our collection in Asian and African Studies includes a certain amount of material useful to those researching family history – particularly relating to India before Independence in 1947. I remember, vividly, helping someone find out about their father who they had never known, and them – to their own huge embarrassment – bursting into tears. I thought: that’s something you don’t experience every day, in any walk of life.

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

Stumbling across something that means a great deal to you, that you would never dream existed. It’s a great pleasure as a librarian to be able to put the collection item alongside the person who wants to see it.

Where's your favourite library, or one you would most like to visit?

The New York Public Library, as I’ve heard a great deal about it but have not yet visited it.

Can you sum up being a librarian in three words?

Friendly. Diligent. Curious.

What do you think makes a good librarian?

You need to have people skills, to put people at ease and extract from them the information you need to be able to help them. Together with a good working knowledge of your own collection, and some knowledge as to where else someone might be able to find what they’re looking for.

Tell us something about yourself that has nothing to do with your job

I compose limericks! Both for and about colleagues, and about a wide range of other things.

There was a young lady called Janet
Who went to a library on Thanet
She saw (it was blatant),
The enquiry desk vacant,
So she thought to herself – should I man it?

Plenty more where that came from!

Can you give us a book recommendation?

Yes, one I was given recently: it’s a modern anthology of writings about libraries and librarians called Long Overdue: A Library Reader by Alan F Taylor.

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.