Living Knowledge blog

6 posts from November 2021

24 November 2021

Behind the scenes at the British Library: Heather Murphy, Conservation Team Leader

In our monthly blog series we go behind the scenes at the Library to introduce you to our people and the many ways they work to bring our collection to everyone. This month we meet Heather Murphy, Conservation Team Leader.

Heather murphyHeather Murphy

Tell me about your role?

Heather is a Conservation Team Leader working on the British Library Qatar Project, a partnership with the Qatar Foundation and Qatar National Library to create the Qatar Digital Library. This free online portal aims to improve our understanding of the Islamic world, Arabic cultural heritage and the modern history of the Gulf.

This is a bi-lingual project in both Arabic and English and the variety of materials Heather works with span hundreds of years. These include books, archival documents, maps, photographs and Arabic manuscripts.

Heather’s team of three conservators are responsible for carrying out any conservation work required prior to digitisation. The practical work of the conservation team includes assessing the condition of materials, repairing papers and stabilising book structures. Heather also trains and advises staff on how to store and handle collection items.

‘We spend a maximum of five hours conservation work on collation materials unless a specific need is identified by curators and conservators. Then we will discuss and agree a treatment approach for these more unique cases.’

How did Covid-19 change the way you work?

Conservation is a very hands-on practical job. During lockdown, Heather and her colleagues were unable to physically work with collection materials.

‘It forced us to focus our attention on the wider elements of conservation and collection care such as research and tools to help people access and understand our collection. It also enabled us to work more collaboratively.’

One of Heather’s lockdown research projects led her to study the history of watermarks. Whilst working with a series of ship’s journals, Heather and her colleague Camille Dekeyser-Thuet noticed interesting examples of early watermark design. Curious about the potential information these could provide, they undertook research to learn more about the date and provenance of the papers, the trade and production patterns involved in the paper industry of the time, and the practice of watermarking paper. Read more about the Watermarks Project.

‘Now that we are back in the studio, we are trying to extend this work to the Arabic manuscripts and contribute to the resources available for their study.’

ArabicWatermark in Arabic Manuscript

How did you get into this field?

Heather studied Fine Art at the University of the Arts in Wimbledon. She has a love of drawing and has always worked with paper. She initially worked at a picture-framers and was introduced to conservators there.

‘I was fascinated to hear more about their work. I liked how it combined my love of paper-based art with this delicate, intricate practical work and also elements of history, research and knowledge of materials.’

She went on to do an MA in Conservation at the University of Arts in Camberwell and worked in conservation roles at private practices, the BFI and the National Archives before joining the Library in 2018.

What do you love about the Library?

Heather appreciates the opportunities for collaboration and the variety of expertise and knowledge she has access to.

‘It’s exciting to work with such skilled people with a wide variety of talents and perspectives.’

What’s your favourite object in the collection?

Pushed to pick one object from the collection, Heather opts for the ships logs she is poring over as part of the Watermarks Project. These journals are from two India Office Records series; IOR/L/MAR/A (dated 1605-1705) and IOR/L/MAR/B (dated 1702-1856) and relate to the East India Company’s voyages

RookeA sketch of the ship Rooke (or Rook) in a storm off Cape Bonesprance (the Cape of Good Hope) (IOR/L/MAR/A/CXXXIII, f. 16v)

‘The records for crews contain fascinating information and insights into daily life at sea, as well as doodles – not to mention the almost hidden watermarks which tell the stories of the paper.’

Any book recommendations for our readers?

Heather is currently reading Dust: The Archive and Cultural History by Carolyn Steedman, a collection of short stories related to archives and writing history.

‘My favourite chapter talks about the physical effects suffered by workers from the dust generated by making processes of paper and books, and also the effect of dust generated by degrading materials of books and paper on later users. She kind of parallels these physical ‘fevers’ with Derrida’s concept of ‘archive fever’. It’s really interesting and unusual – I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in history and archives.’

Follow the British Library Qatar Project on Twitter

Find out more about the Watermarks Project  

Read our Collection Care blog

Find out about Heather’s other paper conservation work

22 November 2021

Meet the Maker: Katch Skinner

In our Meet the Maker blog series, we profile the independent creative businesses behind some of our product ranges in the British Library Shop (both online and at our St Pancras, London site). This month, we meet Katch Skinner, who hand makes unique ceramic items with character.

The studioKatch with dog Pip in the studio

Based at Northlight Art Studios in Hebden Bridge, a not-for-profit cooperative, Katch started making ceramics as a spare time project before stepping up production after winning a Liberty open call in 2018. Katch is inspired by the idea of adding personality or history to otherwise everyday items.

‘My auntie used to have these amazing ceramic mugs with feet on, which always fascinated me – that idea of taking something from the mundane and giving it a narrative is the starting point of a lot of my work. I also have a love for Staffordshire ware and commemorative ware and how it’s used to document historical events, from political satire to holiday souvenirs.’

ExhibitionNTPart of the Women in British History exhibition

As well as egg cups and domestic ware, Katch also produces exhibition-related pieces for museum and gallery shops, as well as one-off items for exhibitions and commissions. Everything is made completely from scratch – the process starts with the design, before sculpting, mould making, casting, fettling, painting, firing and glazing. This level of handcrafting rather than mass-producing is what gives the pieces their uniqueness, with each item appearing to have its own personality.

‘For a little cup like 'Mary, Queen of Scots', once the mould is made, it can then take over a week to make a cup: it is slip cast, fettled and needs about a day or two to dry before underglaze and sgraffito are applied. This is then fired to bisque which takes around two days in the kiln. This then has to be glazed and re-fired to an earthenware temperature, taking another two days.’

Mary Queen of Scots being Sculpted 'Mary, Queen of Scots', being sculpted


Four images of before and after in the kiln. ready to bisque  fired  glaze and then glazed fired fired thenFour images of before and after in the kiln: ready to bisque; fired; glazed; and then glazed and fired


We are delighted to be stocking four of Katch’s egg cup designs at the British Library Shop, with 'Brontë' and 'Austen' as part of our main range, and 'Elizabeth I' and 'Mary, Queen of Scots', as part of our Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens exhibition range. Though they are designed as egg cups, they can have lots of functions such as salt pots, jewellery dishes, small planters, and more. Buying and Merchandising Manager Maxine says:

‘The British Library Shop has always prided itself on supporting designer-makers and working with small businesses to offer products that are unique, innovative and design-led. When I first came across Katch Skinner’s ceramics, they ticked every box for us and we were sure our customers would agree.’

'Brontë' egg cups on the kiln

Having run ceramics classes at Northlight for about seven years, Katch has this year taken a step back from teaching to focus more on producing work – such as a fun project designing exclusive 'Queen' and 'Corgi' egg cups for the National Portrait Gallery. Katch is currently working on a project about local folklore, with plans to exhibit the resulting narrative pots and plates in the places where the stories are from, and hopes for a bigger studio to enable production of larger items.

All 4 cups BL
'Austen', 'Brontë',' Elizabeth I', and 'Mary, Queen of Scots' egg cups

Katch’s advice for anyone starting out with their own business?

‘I have made lots of mistakes – communication is the key with new stockists. Make sure people understand your processes – with my work being handmade I just make to order so turn-around can be from one month to over a year depending on the items. If people understand how you make your work it leads to better partnerships and fewer disappointments.’

Browse the British Library Shop’s Katch Skinner range

Visit Katch’s website

Follow Katch on Instagram

15 November 2021

Library Lives: Mark Freeman, Stockton-on-Tees

‘I have lived a life of libraries, and I have never regretted becoming part of such an absolutely brilliant profession. I’m pleased we are now able to develop new apprentices to take up the reins in the future – libraries will never fade away.’

Following our Libraries Week focus on some of the librarians at our St Pancras and Boston Spa sites, we are stepping out of the British Library to meet librarians around the UK. (If you missed Libraries Week, you can catch up here.)

This month it’s Mark Freeman MBE, qualified librarian and Libraries and Information Services Manager for Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council, as well as a Trustee of Libraries Connected and the immediate past President. Mark has also been involved in setting up the newly established Business & IP Centre Tees Valley, one of 19 National Network BIPCs around the UK.

Mark FreemanMark Freeman

Where was your local library growing up?

Although I wasn’t born there, I spent much of my childhood in my parents’ home county of Northamptonshire. My local library was Kettering and my mum started work there when we moved to the town in 1967, having moved about a bit. My first library card was at Leamington Spa Library when we lived in the area for a while.   

Why did you want to become a librarian?

As my mum worked in the library, I was very used to being in there and we’d always been library users in the past. I got my first job as a Saturday Helper in Kettering Library in 1976 and from the first moment I was hooked. I loved the experience of meeting people, helping them to find their reading choices and helping them to deal with the everyday information that they needed.

A long lost photo of me at 18 working in Kettering‘A long lost photo of me at 18 working in Kettering.’

Do you have a favourite item in your library’s collection?

Not a favourite item, but a favourite section! It would be hard to pick out something from the thousands of titles but I love travelling, so I’ve always gravitated towards the Travel section in every library I’ve ever worked in.

Travel section

What is the most unusual or unexpected query you’ve helped someone with?

I was once asked if I would go into a quiet corner with a young woman in the Reference Library as she wanted to discuss something with me, which was private! I was a bit worried, but it turned out that she thought she was a long lost sibling of a famous singer. I turned immediately to one of our Media Directories to try to find his agent. I never found out if she was right….

What do you like best about libraries?

My favourite thing that you can do in a library is to get lost in someone else’s world. I love books that are set in far off places, and in places that are a bit closer to home too.  My favourite genre is crime and I particularly like those set in places I’m familiar with. 

Other than your own, where's your favourite library, or one you would most like to visit?

I’ve been lucky to visit libraries across the world and work in some of them. It’s a bit hard to pin down a real favourite as there are so many absolutely great buildings. Having said that, I am particularly impressed by the Finnish Library Service and although I know most would probably choose the new Oodi Library in Helsinki, I think I’m going to choose the one in Tampere which I visited a few years back. It’s an amazing piece of architecture and an absolutely brilliant service.

Sum up being a librarian in three words

People. Empathy. Exploration.

What do you think makes a good librarian?

A good librarian is one who has a passion for supporting the people who come through the door, and for encouraging those who don’t. It’s not just about reading and books, it’s all about understanding how reading, literacy and information help people to find themselves and to develop.  A good librarian has to have empathy, understanding and curiosity.

If you weren't doing your current job, what would you be?

I would have been an architect! I absolutely love buildings, heritage and history and would have loved to have had that kind of role. Working in the library service has not disappointed me though and it’s taken me to places I only dreamed of.

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

I was born outside the UK and I’m proud of my association with my birthplace on the Mediterranean island of Malta.

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

They are the last free, non-judgemental service that anyone can use and that can help deal with the challenges of everyday life, as well as providing an endless source of entertainment and education.

How have things changed in libraries since you qualified?

Although the basic premise of our service has not changed at all, the way in which we deliver library services now is completely different to the way we did it back in the late 70s when I first joined the service.  We had no computers then, no library management systems and the only multimedia we had to start off with was black vinyl discs.  I’ve watched as our service has developed with the times and I’m proud that we are still here helping people make sense of the information world around them and connecting them to different ways of reading that we couldn’t even imagine back then.  For the most part, these innovations have really helped us to provide support to people who could not have accessed reading and information in the way that they can now. We have widened horizons for everyone.

Book recommendation?

Not one book but a whole series, beginning with Tales of the City, by Armistead Maupin. I love these sensitive, humorous and sometimes outrageous stories of life starting in 1970s San Francisco and working their way up to date through the challenges of AIDS and all the joy and sadness that went with the changing times.

Interview by Ellen Morgan

Mark has also been involved in setting up the newly established Business & IP Centre Tees Valley, one of 19 National Network BIPCs around the UK. The BIPC can help you imagine, start or develop your business.

We’re interviewing 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.