Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

21 February 2022

Library Lives: Adrian Edwards, British Library St Pancras

‘Librarians can help bring antiquarian books to life. We can show people how they capture the thoughts and experiences of past generations. How the styles of binding, illustration, page layout and typeface show that design is never static. And how the scribbles, doodles and wine stains may hint at what previous owners and readers really thought of the text in front of them.’ 

We're back at the British Library for this month’s Library Lives, with Adrian Edwards, Head of Printed Heritage Collections. 

Adrian Edwards
Adrian Edwards

Where was your local library growing up? 

Kempston Branch Library in Bedford. A completely rectangular building that must have been constructed in the early 1960s. When I was growing up, all the books were on the walls around the edge, leaving the middle totally empty. You always felt that everyone was watching everyone else. 

Why did you want to become a librarian? 

I always enjoyed organising things as a teenager: books and people. 

Tell us about your role at the British Library 

I lead the curatorial team that acquire and interpret the British Library’s collections of older printed books published from the 15th century through to the end of the 20th century. 

Adrian's desk at St PancrasAdrian's desk at St Pancras

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

Can I choose the entire King’s Library of George III? 

Adrian takes us on a tour of the King’s Library 

What is the most unusual query you have helped someone with? 

When I worked at the Ministry of Agriculture Main Library people were always looking for information about ostrich farming: it was all the rage in the late 1980s, but there was very little guidance about how to do it well, and we largely relied on finding obscure articles in Farmers Weekly

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

Jubilee Library, Brighton, is my local library and definitely one of my favourites. It’s partly wind and solar powered, and re-uses the rainwater that falls on the roof to flush the loos. How cool is that!  

I also love Stockholm Public Library; the inside of the 1920s rotunda is a Scandinavian design classic. 

Can you sum up being a librarian in three words? 

Information. Navigation. Interpretation. 

What do you think makes a good librarian? 

The ability to organise bits of knowledge and see the connections. It’s good to be familiar with the full range of old-fashioned reference books too, as it helps to be one step ahead of Wikipedia. 

Outside of work... 

I have an amazing collection of Finnish postage stamps, but don’t tell anyone. 


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

That when we do exhibitions, it’s not just about putting pretty things in cases, it’s about telling interesting, well-researched stories. 

Do you have a favourite fictional librarian? 

The orangutan at the Unseen University (Terry Pratchet). Fetching books is so much easier when you can climb the shelves. 

Can you recommend us a book? 

Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy. It follows the life of the adult Alexander the Great from the perspective of his eunuch bedroom slave. I read it when I was 16, and again when I was 55, and was moved by it both times.  

Interview by Ellen Morgan. 

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 [email protected]  

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