Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

5 posts from February 2022

11 February 2022

The impact of philanthropy

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Our Philanthropy Impact Report celebrates the achievements made possible by the generosity of our wonderful supporters. Whether you donate via our website, pop spare notes into our donation box, top up your exhibition ticket with a gift, adopt a book for a loved one, support us through a membership or buy from our shop – each action you take, makes a world of difference to our work. Find out how in the stories below.

A helping hand for home schooling

The pandemic turned homes into classrooms during the height of lockdown. But without internet access or digital devices, this left some young people with no access to learning resources. With support from our donors, we developed a series of free, creative activity books which, through one project alone, helped over 50,000 children take a learning adventure from their living room.

Our first booklet, Once Upon an Adventure, was produced in collaboration with children’s author Viviane Schwarz and featured activities designed to take its audience on a storytelling adventure. From a map to chart your voyage of discovery to directions for creating a toy theatre, the activities created opportunities to explore illustration, writing, imaginative play, character creation and design.

Distributing packs to pupils in our neighbourhood borough of Camden as well as the areas of the UK that needed them most, we reached children in 215 schools. We also worked with community partners and food banks to support families facing difficulty during lockdown, creating two booklets full of learning activities for kids to do at home, inspired by our collection and our exhibition Paddington: The Story of a Bear.

With thanks to the generosity of Old Possum’s Practical Trust, The Truemark Trust, The Tuixen Foundation, the Kusuma Trust and The Corcoran Foundation.

Exploring the world from home

2021 saw the completion of a seven-year project to catalogue, conserve and digitise the topographical collection of King George III, which was presented to the nation by King George IV in 1823. The collection includes 40,000 printed and hand-drawn items, beautifully illustrated historic maps, topographical views, charts, architectural plans and atlases, from across the globe and spanning the centuries.

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Thanks to the generosity of charitable trusts, businesses and individual supporters, the entire collection is now available on the free image sharing site Flickr. And we’ve opened upnew, fully searchable catalogue records on Explore the British Library. For the first time, anyone can remotely view, search and enjoy one of the world’s richest public collections on the history of place.

Digitising our collection is a key part of our mission to make our collection open and accessible to everyone, everywhere. With a collection of over 170 million items, which grows by 8km every year, a vast resource is needed to realise these ambitions. We’re so thankful to all of our supporters who made this digital transformation possible.

A supporter’s story

Michael Katakis is a writer and photographer. His life’s work, and that of his late wife, anthropologist Kris L. Hardin, is part of our collection. Michael and Kris have also supported us philanthropically, and Michael took the time to tell us why.

Michael and Kris decided to house their work at the Library after realising how important it was to keep a record of events. The pair spent a lot of time in Sierra Leone, documenting the civil war and residents of the village of Kainkordu, who they came to know and love. ‘Kris and I were deeply honoured to have our work there (at the Library) and relieved that in one of the world’s greatest institutions there is a record of a people in a time and place before war.’

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So, why does he think libraries are so important?

It is no exaggeration when I say that a library and a librarian saved me. I lost my mother at a young age and I was very withdrawn from the world. In desperation, my father took me to a branch of the Chicago Public Library and walked me up to a big oak desk. I raised my eyes slightly and saw a name plate. ‘Mrs Helen Cabbage.’ Is that not a perfect name for a librarian? She came around her desk, put her arm around my shoulder and walked me through the narrow paths between the high shelves of books. And then she said,

“Every word in all of these books is a thread that will weave a magic carpet that will take you everywhere, and after you have travelled through their pages you will find that there are more kind and open hearts than there are monsters and knowing that will make you less afraid.”

The impact that the library and Mrs Cabbage had on me opened the world up to me, and set me on the path my life would take. Do I think libraries are important? Just for a moment, imagine a world without them.

Michael has very kindly chosen to remember us in his will. The impact, he hopes, will be great.

Kris and I have left nearly everything we own to the British Library and our own small-town library, because it is profoundly important to support the best institutions that human beings have created for everyone, no matter their status, wealth or background. Libraries are one of the greatest achievements and contributions by humankind to understanding and knowledge. The work that librarians, curators and library staff do is some of the most honourable and important in the world.

Each donation helps us to open up a world of ideas and inspiration for everyone. Read more about how your donations have helped us in our Philanthropy Impact Report

To support our work, you can donate online. Or perhaps you’d like to play a bigger part in our story by becoming a Patron or leaving us a gift in your will. To find out how please contact our Development team at [email protected]

Thank you for your support.

Imogen Hobson

Major Gifts and Philanthropy Manager


02 February 2022

Behind the scenes at the British Library: Graham Jevon, Cataloguer for the Endangered Archives Programme

Go behind the scenes at the Library and meet our people and the many ways they work to bring our collection to everyone. This month it’s Graham Jevon, Cataloguer for the Endangered Archives Programme and researcher on the Library’s Agents of Enslavement project. 

Graham Jevon
Graham Jevon

Tell me about your role 

My normal day job is Cataloguer for the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), which facilitates the digitisation of endangered archival material across the world. Since 2004 we have funded more than 400 projects in over 90 countries, from Argentinian photographs to Tibetan scroll painting, Arabic manuscripts, parish registers, Bengali cinema booklets, and 2000-year-old Libyan rock inscriptions, to name just a few.

The EAP1320 project team inspecting manuscripts in Kerala, India. 
The EAP1320 project team inspecting manuscripts in Kerala, India. 

The EAP1319 project team surveying manuscripts in Vat That Khao temple, Vientiane, Laos.
The EAP1319 project team surveying manuscripts in Vat That Khao temple, Vientiane, Laos.

At the end of each digitisation project we receive a hard drive containing all of the digital images to put online, and we also receive a spreadsheet containing information that describes these images. My role is to process all this data so that we can ensure that the collections are easy to navigate and understand. This means that my time is mainly spent creating, editing, moving, and analysing data. Lots of data. 

Currently, though, I am on research leave four days a week as one of the Library’s two Coleridge Fellows for 2021. My research project uses 18th- and 19th-century newspapers digitised by the Barbados Archives Department to look at the ways in which colonial newspapers facilitated or challenged the practice of slavery. A major part of this project has involved crowdsourcing and we have had amazing support from the public. In less than three weeks after the project launched, more than 3,000 volunteers helped identify over 25,000 adverts relating to slavery. This community is now answering questions about these adverts to help extract key information.  

Meanwhile, using machine learning and other computational methods, I am curating this data in order to create a free-to-access database that will include detailed information about the identities and lives of enslaved people. This database will be freely available to the public and researchers so they can trace ancestors, conduct academic research, or maybe just explore the life stories of people hidden within these newspapers. 

Agents of Enslavement homepage

How did you get into this field? 

My career in cultural heritage organisations began with a series of history degrees, culminating in a DPhil from the University of Oxford and the publication of a book relating to the history of the British Empire in the Middle East. This research background led me to join a project to create a digital archive relating to Gulf History at The National Archives (TNA). The digital archiving experience I got at TNA led me to the British Library – and it doesn’t get much better than working for EAP, which must be one of the world’s largest, varied, and most successful digital archives. 

What do you love about the Library? 

The opportunity to collaborate with great people and to learn and try new things. I’m lucky to be closely connected with the Library’s Digital Scholarship team who are always looking to innovate and upskill. A great example of this is the recent computing for cultural heritage programme, which supported staff members to study for a postgraduate degree in data science. I was lucky enough to be part of this cohort where I was able to meet new people from across the Library and learn new digital skills which I am now putting in to practice as part of my research fellowship. 

Any book recommendations for our readers? 

Whenever I read a book I tend to forget what happened very quickly, which means I’m not very good at recommending books. I’m also very indecisive. But three books spring to mind, and I suddenly realise that all three share some similarities (which makes me feel better about recommending more than one). The three books are: 

  • Spies by Michael Frayn 
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon 
  • Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. 

In all three books there is a strong focus on childhood and growing up. Particularly in Cat’s Eye and Spies, where the adult narrators look back at their childhood and the secrets they contain. Perhaps the key unifying aspect of the three books is that they all merge the past with the present. And given my background as a historian, perhaps it is not surprising that of all the books I have read, it is these three books that stand out to me. 

What’s your favourite object in our collection? 

According to Wikipedia, the British Library is estimated to contain approximately 200 million items. And I’ve already admitted to being indecisive. So this seems like an impossible question to answer. But right now I can’t really look past the collection of digitised newspapers that I am currently using for my research. 


The original copies of these newspapers are located in Barbados where they were digitised. But digital copies sit on the British Library’s server where they are freely available for anyone with an internet connection to view online. These newspapers are not an easy read. They are full of offensive language and contain vivid descriptions of the horrendous treatment received by people forced into chattel slavery. It is the normalisation of this system that is often so jarring. But despite being a tool of enslavement and a mouthpiece for enslavers, these newspapers are now helping to reveal the identities, connections, and acts of resistance of people enslaved in British colonies. And it is for that reason that this collection stands out to me, not necessarily as a favourite. But because of its historical and contemporary significance. 

Find out more about the Agents of Enslavement project by clicking here.