Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

5 posts from April 2022

28 April 2022

Our top 10 most unusual collection items

We’re more than Magna Carta and Beowulf. Dig deep within our archives you’ll find some rather unusual and unexpected objects – from talking stamps to the Edwardian equivalent of today’s Sat Nav.

We asked our curators and librarians to tell us the most curious items they’ve encountered in our collections. Take a deep breath as we plunge inside our cabinet of curiosities...

1. Miniature mail boat

Presenting the Library’s only ocean-going vessel!

St Kilda is a now-uninhabited small island group some 50 miles west of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. This ‘mail boat’ was used in the transport of mail from Hirta, the main island, between 1876 and 1930. Letters were placed in the wooden boat in a protective canister, together with a request for the finder to post the mail to its destination.

It was then sealed with pitch and launched into the sea, with the sheep’s bladder acting as a float. More often than not, the North Atlantic drift would carry it to the Scottish mainland, the Outer Hebrides or sometimes even Norway.

The first mail boat was sent out as a distress signal in 1876 and the method continued to be used until the inhabitants were evacuated from the islands in 1930.

2. Peter the Great's gloves

These 17th-century gloves, belonging to diarist John Evelyn (1620–1706), were said to be gifted by Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (1672–1725) as a token of apology for leaving his house and grounds in rather a state after a visit.

A brown leather glove with tassels
Legend has it that while a tenant at Evelyn’s London property Sayes Court, Deptford in 1698, the Tsar engaged in antics ranging from destructive wheelbarrow races through the immaculately-landscaped gardens, to using paintings for target practice and furniture for firewood.

Unfortunately, the story behind the gifting of these gloves has never been corroborated with evidence, and so continues to remain speculation.

George III’s horse’s hooves

This collection of horse hooves and shoes comes from a book of lectures on farriery published in 1793. The lectures – by the first professor of the New Veterinary College of London, Charles Vial de Sainbel – deal with how to build horse shoes for different types of hooves. 

Containing six plaster casts of hooves of varying sizes, together with six brass horse shoes, the set was designed for students to practice the teachings of the lectures. The work was one of the 65,000 printed books collected by George III for his collection, currently housed in the King’s Tower.

4. A vintage Sat Nav

The ‘Micro Motor Map’ – a forerunner to today’s GPS – was an ingenious attempt to solve the Edwardian motorist’s problem of how to drive and read a map at the same time. A reduced-size road map was carried on a set of 14 slides, each of which could be inserted into a hand-held viewing frame. This was held up to the light while driving – though presumably not at the top speeds of 60 mph that some cars then could travel.

5. London Underground board game

This board game is an actual London Underground map from 1908, which has been pasted onto card. Players pick tickets telling them where they need to begin and end their journeys, and the fare to pay (no more than a penny or two). Landing on (and remembering to call out) ‘All change!’ entitles a lucky winner to the contents of the booking hall. 

1908 was also the year that London hosted the Franco-British Exhibition and its first Olympics, so this game is likely to have been a hit with both locals and tourists alike.

How To Get There 530

6. Shelley’s hair and ashes

Percy Bysshe Shelley was just 29 when he tragically drowned after his boat was caught in a storm in 1822.

In what can be described as a sort of memento of mourning, this book gathers together the letters and documents that describe his demise and the afterlife of his remains. Contained within the front lining of the book is a lock of his hair, believed to be cut following his death, together with a lock of hair from his widow Mary Shelley.

The front binding of a book with two circular frames containing locks of hair 400
The rear lining of the same book contains material said to be from the ashes of Percy collected from his site of cremation.

Perhaps an oddity today – although in the death-obsessed Victorian age, this is unlikely to have raised an eyebrow.

. A 2,000-year-old homework book

'Accept advice from someone wise, it is not right to believe every friend of yours.’ This is the Greek maxim that a teacher from Egypt, almost 2 millennia ago, instructs a pupil to copy out into their wax tablets as homework. The student however, is unlikely to have received top marks as he makes a series of disastrous errors, including missing out the first letter, as this video explains. 

Fast forwarding in time, this 17th-century schoolbook contains the doodles of its young owners, including one Hannah Barrow who scrawled her name on as many of the blank pages as she could find. That’s one way to procrastinate before the age of the smartphone!

Jane Austen’s writing desk and spectacles

In 1794 Jane Austen’s father gave her this portable ‘writing-box’. When open, it provides a slope on which to rest paper while writing. Its various compartments include a space for an ink pot and a lockable drawer for paper and valuables.

An open wooden box with an open handwritten notebook and pair of spectacles 530

Between 1795 and 1799 Austen produced first drafts of what would later become Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, perhaps using this very writing desk. 

Among the items that had been stored for generations in the desk drawer were three pairs of spectacles which are believed to have belonged to Austen. Optical tests were even carried out on them to determine her prescription and whether she may have developed cataracts, potentially induced by arsenic poisoning.

Beethoven’s tuning fork

Over two centuries, this tuning fork passed through a succession of A-list composers.  

A silver tuning fork in a wooden box 440
It is thought to have belonged to Beethoven until 1803. Following a promise ‘never to sell it’ but instead to hand it to ‘some decent muskier who would care for it and pass it along when the time came’, it subsequently ended up in the possession of composer Gustav Holst, who in turn passed it down to Ralph Vaughan Williams.

In 1993, Vaughan Williams’s second wife Ursula presented it to the British Library in the ‘hope that all musicians will feel that in belonging to this treasure house, it belongs to them all’. For a deeper insight into the mind of Beethoven, the British Library also holds his handwritten laundry list.

Talking stamps

In 1973 Bhutan issued the world’s first set of ‘talking’ stamps. Each one is essentially a miniature one-sided vinyl record with gum on the back, playing material ranging from the national anthem to oral histories.

A green vinyl 350
Aimed specifically at the international stamp-collecting community, they were issued to help raise funds for major infrastructure projects following the World Bank’s refusal to lend the Bhutanese Government $10 million.

Although not taken seriously by the philatelic community at the time, they are now highly sought after by stamp and vinyl collectors.

A few more of our favourites

By Elliot Sinclair, Web Editor in the Digital Team

20 April 2022

Library Lives: Paramjit Hans, Birmingham

‘My favourite enquiry? A child once asked if we had photographs of real dinosaurs!’

In this month’s celebration of librarians, we meet Paramjit Hans, Business and Learning Officer at the Library of Birmingham.

Paramjit HansParamjit Hans

Tell us about your role

My main job is Business and IP advisor at BIPC Birmingham and I also work on the customer service desk, helping people with enquiries, finding and reserving items and advising on learning and work opportunities.

I have a Postgraduate Diploma in Librarianship and Information Studies – I initially got a job as a Library Assistant and the opportunity arose to get qualified whilst working. I did my course one day a week for three years.

The Library of Birmingham
The Library of Birmingham

Where was your local library growing up?

I grew up in Handsworth, Birmingham and that was my local library.

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

Audubon’s Birds of America. John James Audubon was an ornithologist in the early 19th century and created this large and beautifully illustrated four-volume book. It’s a very rare and valuable item, which can only be viewed by appointment. I have a long-standing interest in wildlife so can appreciate the exquisite detail and skill of the artist in these pictures.

Iceland or Jer Falcon from Birds of America
Iceland or Jer Falcon from Birds of America

[The British Library also holds a copy of Birds of America. Click here to take a look.]

What’s your favourite query that you’ve helped someone with?

A child once asked if we had photographs of real dinosaurs!

What's your favourite thing about your library?

I love that you can look at the historical development of the local area, and see what your street looked like 100 years ago.

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

I would really like to visit the Vatican Library as I am fascinated by historical artefacts that draw a vivid picture of life as it was centuries ago.

Sum up being a librarian in three words

Helping people discover.

What do you think makes a good librarian?

Empathy, patience and good listening skills.

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

Anything to do with animal conservation.

Outside of work…

I have run nearly 100 half marathons.

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

That we have whole collections that have been donated: original works not available elsewhere. At the Library of Birmingham, there are some very rare and early editions of Shakespeare plays.

Favourite fictional librarian?

Malachi of Hildesheim, from the film The Name of the Rose, based on the 1980 novel of the same name by Umberto Eco. He was a fascinating character, charged with protecting the secret content of comedic books at all costs.

Book recommendation?

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton. This is an analysis of how we can learn lessons from ancient philosophers, which will help us better our lives now.

Find out more about Birmingham's BIPC Centre by clicking here. It’s one of 19 National Network BIPCs around the UK. The BIPC can help you imagine, start or develop your business. 

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. 

12 April 2022

Behind the scenes at the British Library: Lucy Hinnie, Wikimedian-in-Residence

This month we meet Boston Spa-based Lucy Hinnie.

Lucy hinnieLucy Hinnie, shared under CC BY-NC-SA

What’s the role?

Lucy is the Library’s current Wikimedian-in-Residence, working with curators and collections to share information in meaningful and exciting ways across Wikimedia platforms.

‘People often ask me what Wikimedia is: is it just a different name for Wikipedia? In short, not really. The Wikimedia Foundation is a nonprofit organisation that 'provides the essential infrastructure for free knowledge'. This is done through a variety of websites and projects – Wikipedia is the just the best known.’

You have probably used Wikipedia, the encyclopaedia that anyone can edit, today without even realising it: the information it stores also powers all sorts of devices like Alexa, Siri and Google searches.

‘It is very important that it is accurate and well-maintained, and that is where Wikimedians come in,’ explains Lucy. ‘We help to train people to edit Wikipedia, and improve its contents, as well as addressing gaps in knowledge, like gender inequity.’

But as Lucy says, it’s not just about Wikipedia.

‘Wikimedia Commons is a place where you can upload open access images and files, and use them in a variety of different ways. Often library collections might want to put some or all of their digital files on Commons, to increase accessibility. We also work with Wikidata, which works in a very similar way to Wikipedia, but with data.

‘It can be hard to get your head around at first, but essentially Wikidata lets you add information about people, places and things in a very basic format. This information can then be read by computers and humans, and we can ask questions about this data ('querying') to find out more about patterns and connections. This is of great interest to the Library, where we work with vast collections of items, with limitless connections to people and places throughout history. Wikidata lets us visualise these connections in a clearer way. All of these projects are free to use and open to all.’

Lucy’s IRL base is the Library’s site in Boston Spa, Yorkshire, where she can be found juggling several different projects at any given time – from engagement and outreach activities, such as Wikithons (events where people collaborate in real time to create wiki content), to building databases with Wikibase to create searchable records. She works closely with Wikimedia UK and other partners, like Leeds Central Library and comic art festival Thought Bubble, to run physical and online events.

She’s often approached by British Library staff who want to know how they can engage with Wikimedia to help open up the British Library’s collection to more people.

'One of my colleagues at the Library, Sam Tillett, once described my way of working as ‘doing exciting things with small sets of content’ and I love that way of looking at it. I have worked with some of our bigger collections, such as the India Office Records, taking a small section of their content (around five reports from a much larger set), uploading them to Wikimedia Commons and directing interest and traffic back to the Library.’

How did you get the job?

‘The short answer: Completely by accident!’ says Lucy.

‘The longer answer: I have a traditional humanities background. I studied English and Scottish Literature as an undergraduate and completed a PhD in medieval Scottish literature at the University of Edinburgh. Around 2016, I started to get interested in the potential of digital humanities. I was studying abroad, in Canada, working on a digital editing project, when the pandemic hit. This made me even more interested in remote [not in one centralised location] collaboration.

‘I attended a series of talks about Wikipedia, and the way that these presentations framed its work as knowledge activism really captivated me. I started incorporating Wikipedia into my teaching, and then I applied for the British Library job in late 2020, all the way from my desk in Canada, thinking it was probably a long shot. Thankfully I was wrong!’

What’s your favourite object in our collection?

‘My predecessor, Andrew Gray, worked on the digitisation of the Picturing Canada Canadian Copyright Collection, and as a result many images of Canada in the 1800s are now available on Wikimedia Commons. There is so much within that collection that deserves comment and further examination, particularly in relation to the way that people and their bodies are portrayed.’

You can read more about the collection in this article in the Public Domain Review by Andrew and Phil Hatfield, and more about the issues surrounding the photographing of Indigenous people by Alison Meier at the Wellcome Collection.

‘Amidst all the images of large scale colonisation, when I first saw this collection, I was struck by the presence of the Globe Kittens. Somehow, in the late 19th century, people still found time to take photos of their cats, and these fluffy kittens are undeniably very photogenic.’


What do you love about the Library?

Lucy enjoys the wide array of people that she gets to meet through the job, and the vast array of interests and passions that are represented by Library staff.

‘I am consistently impressed by the dedication the Library has to representing a wide range of knowledge and collections. I love being on site in both Boston Spa and St Pancras: in Boston Spa, we are based in a peaceful, rural location with endless collection storage and the internal workings of library operations, while at St Pancras I get to hop off the train at King’s Cross and be right in the heart of the city and the public-facing elements of the Library in the iconic building. I’ve also been very pleasantly surprised by how willing my colleagues are to implement Wiki methodologies and look towards engagement, equity and access: the potential for new and exciting work is really inspiring.’

Any book recommendations?

For further reading on Wikipedia, Lucy recommends a collection of essays, ‘Wikipedia at 20: Stories of an Incomplete Revolution,’and ‘Data Feminism’ by Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren F Klein, an examination of the ways in which data and digital scholarship need to work to combat embedded bias.

Outside of the digital realm, ‘I very much enjoyed Kindred by Octavia E Butler, and my favourite book of all time is Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, which is, in many ways, a love letter to York, where I now live. The narrator, Ruby Lennox, is fantastically unreliable, wickedly funny, and a hero of mine. Finally, I’m also enjoying The Wild Remedy by Emma Mitchell, which is a beautiful book about nature and mental health, and kept me going through the long winter.’