Knowledge Matters blog

3 posts from November 2022

23 November 2022

Doctoral Open Days – 15 years and counting

DOD-1A Doctoral Open Day attendee and a curator looking at a collection item during  a ‘show and tell’ session.

Earlier this year, we celebrated our 15th season of Doctoral Open Days (DODs). These annual events are designed to introduce first year PhD students from across the UK and beyond to using our collection and resources in their doctoral research. The ways that we’ve run these events has shifted over the years, and as we start to plan season 16, we’re looking to reshape our DODs again.

For the first decade, DODs were several day-long events at our St Pancras site in London, each focused on broad subject, geographical and chronological areas. In 2017, we added an event at our Boston Spa site to our annual programme. The Boston Spa event offered a broad introduction to our collection, and particularly to the resources available in our Reading Room in Yorkshire.

DOD-2Attendees at a Doctoral Open Day walking towards the main entrance of the British Library’s St Pancras site.

The last time we ran the series in this format was at the beginning of 2020. The final event of the season was the Americas day on 28 February, just a couple of weeks before the first lockdown.

In 2021, we pivoted to an online offer, with eight weekly half-day webinars. The series included an introductory module focused on the practicalities of finding resources in our catalogues, and seven sessions exploring areas of our collection in more detail.

This year, we ran a similar series of webinars, and we were also able to offer four orientation sessions at our St Pancras site. The events focused on practicalities of getting set up as readers and navigating the building. Our reference team hosted a surgery-style drop-in to help attendees get to grips with searching our catalogues. We also had ‘Show and Tell’ sessions where some of our curators offered attendees a glimpse of items from our vast and varied collection, and our conservation team demonstrated how to handle collection items safely.

It was great to welcome PhD students for in-person DODs again. For many attendees, this was the first time they had visited the Library. We were delighted that 100% attendees that responded to our feedback survey felt that the event met its aim to offer a practical introduction to our St Pancras site.

At the same time, attendance numbers and audience feedback show that an online offer makes it easier for more students to attend one or more sessions. Lots of PhD topics don’t fit neatly into one of the broad thematic areas of the events, and the online modules make it easier for students to pick and mix relevant sessions.

Feedback from both attendees and Library colleagues involved in these events tell us that a mixture of online and on-site sessions will be the right approach for the DODs in future years.

DOD-4A member of the Library’s conservation team showing students a book model.

After 15 years of DODs, thirteen on-site seasons, one online series and one hybrid programme, it’s a good time to reflect on what that mixture looks like for future seasons.

If you’re starting a PhD next academic year and are interested in attending our 2023 DODs, keep your eyes on the Research Collaboration webspace for news of the next series. You can also sign up to our quarterly research e-news to receive details of our research events, opportunities and stories of research at the Library. Request to join the mailing list by emailing [email protected]

We look forward to seeing you next year!

Naomi Billingsley

Interim Head of Research Development


15 November 2022

Our role in building a brighter climate future 

St Pancras solar 2 571Solar panels being installed on the roof of our St Pancras building, in London.

As the UK’s national library, we hold over 170 million items including this morning’s tweet, each day’s newspapers, and items from every age of written civilisation. Like any large institution, we can be complex. There are many cogs that keep a place that inspires people all over the world going. And like everyone, we are navigating this change to help create a brighter climate future for people and the planet. 

Maja Maricevic, Head of Higher Education and Science, leads our science work and is exploring the role that we play in helping solve the challenges of climate change. In this piece, she reflects on the work we have undertaken over the past decade, the planning and changes we’ve made in the last year and challenges on our future to-do list. 

I think that calling it climate change is rather limiting. I would rather call it everything change... Margaret Atwood - in conversation with Ed Finn from Arizona State University

As a place where people come to work on their research and new ideas, we know that many scientists, students, businesspeople and creative practitioners use our collections to improve our understanding of climate change. Using our collections, they can devise innovative solutions to help us reverse or slow down global warming or even improve the resilience of our communities and economy. Most recently we realised that we can also amplify our impact through collaboration across the libraries sector and further afield, helping us drive toward a deeper commitment to do more and better.

Our buildings

Our organisational climate action starts with our own journey towards Net Zero. Over the last decade we have significantly reduced our carbon emissions and waste. Measured against a 2009/10 baseline, we reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 67% and our waste by 48% in 2019/2020.

2021-22 was a particularly exciting year in changing the way our buildings work for the better. Helped by a £1.3 million grant from the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme we installed 1,477 photovoltaic panels on two buildings in our Boston Spa site in Yorkshire and the initial work has been completed for a Ground Source Heat Pump, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and generating an anticipated 1MW of energy - the equivalent of powering 650 average homes.  The British Library - Sep 2022 - Credit Dan Watts - Web Optimised (8) (1) 571Solar panels on the rooftop of our buildings at Boston Spa, West Yorkshire. [Photo: Dan Watts]

Our people and partnerships

We value the initiatives and actions taken by our staff in their day-to-day activities to help reduce their individual impact. This is driven by our staff-led Sustainability Group that was established two years ago. In April 2022 the group held its first conference to examine what sustainability means in theory and what it looks like in practice, both at the Library and for our partners. The group initiated practical action across different departments. This included a new monitor sleep policy put in place by our Technology team that reduced power consumption from almost 30 watts to 0.5 watts per monitor.

Over the last year a particular highlight has been developing changes alongside our colleagues and partners in the libraries sector. The Living Knowledge Network is a UK-wide network of public and national libraries. Initial discussions were kick started about the role that libraries already play in enabling positive climate action in communities. In October 2021, the Network hosted and convened nearly 100 public library partners to a workshop on libraries roles and climate change – the first event of its kind for the sector. 

The event inspired our next action step. Together with the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Libraries Connected, Julie’s Bicycle and Arts Council England we started the Green Libraries Partnership. This partnership is a UK cross-sector initiative to support public libraries in building long term environmental understanding and action. We work together to find solutions as a team. So far we have launched the Green Libraries Grants to incentivise new initiatives and green innovation in library spaces. You can see the positive work that’s taken place in a survey from sustainability consultant Julie’s Bicycle. The Partnership launched the Green Libraries Manifesto to help us express our aspirations as a sector and collectively advance our sustainable practices. With signatories as far as Mexico and Ghana, the partnership holds so much potential to galvanise action and engagement in the UK and further afield.

Another key network is our Business & IP Centres in the heart of communities across the UK, which support the realisation of ideas to become brilliant new businesses. Over the last couple of years, a key thread of events to support ‘Eco-concious Entrepreneurs’ helped businesses to establish greener business practices.

Green Libraries picture (1) 571

Our collection and collaborations

When someone thinks of a library, they think books. Soon we will launch our first Environmentalist in Residence open call that will help to change perceptions of the ideas our collection can spark. We are developing new roles that aim to interpret and examine our science collections, shining a light on items that will help shape future research. 

In the meantime, we want as many people as possible to come on this journey with us. Recently we have hosted events and partnerships to engage with people of all ages and interests. This includes The Natural Word, a series of events and workshops that you can watch on the British Library Player. Ahead of COP26 in 2021, we worked in partnership with Blue Peter to launch Our Planet Now. This competition asked young people to submit a  poem or short story about taking climate action. We also collaborated with the British Fashion Council and designer Phoebe English who showcased sustainable fashion practices in an installation entitled Here: an alternative route, unveiled at the Library during London Fashion Week in September 2021 that went on to travel to the COP26 where Phoebe won ‘Leader of Change’ award in the Fashion Awards 2021. 

DSCF0342 2 - 571Detail of the installation by fashion designer Phoebe English.

The future

“Everything change” in a large organisation requires a lot of multidimensional thinking and it sometimes can seem overwhelming. Continuing to move forward is what really matters, even when the answers are not immediately obvious. We can advance by evolving different approaches and solutions while ensuring that environmental sustainability is at the heart of our decision-making. 

In the coming months, we will be further developing our strategic frameworks to ensure that sustainability and environmental action runs through all of our activities. This will mean plenty of new challenges ahead, such as developing a better understanding of our procurement chain and of our future commitment to Net Zero when it comes to our extensive digital activities. We are undertaking further research to make sure that we can improve our current plans for achieving Net Zero by 2030. And, as an organisation that helps spark new ideas, we continue to collaborate with others to grow climate knowledge and inspire positive climate action.

Maja Maricevic

Head of Higher Education and Science


14 November 2022

Behind the Scenes at the British Library: Sandra A. Agard, Learning Facilitator for Schools

In this special edition of Behind the Scenes, we sat down with Sandra A. Agard, our Learning Facilitator for Schools.

Sandra is also a well-renowned storyteller, writer, and cultural historian. She recently won an honorary fellowship with the Royal Society of Literature, as well as the Benson Medal; an award given to those who have demonstrated conspicuous service to literature throughout their career.

Sandra Photo 2

Sandra A. Agard.


What do you do as a Learning Facilitator for Schools?

‘We conduct creative arts workshops with primary and secondary schools. We organise workshops around the exhibitions - so currently there’s one on Alexander the Great. But we also do other workshops - we’ve got a creative writing one at the moment, we do the Black British Literature timeline, Windrush Voices, Sacred Texts, Listen Up - it’s vast. We do quite a few sessions using the British Library’s massive collections!’


Could you tell us about what you do outside of the Library?

‘Outside of the Library, I’m a writer, author, a book doctor, a literature consultant. I’m a creative writing tutor, and I mentor some young people in their creative writing, and life issues from time-to-time’.


How did you come to work at the British Library?

‘I’ve worked in public libraries for a long time. In 2016, I thought I’d retire.’

But then, Sandra saw the listing for the Learning Facilitator for Schools role, and decided to go for it.

‘I didn’t think I’d get it. I was in Nunhead doing a workshop, and I got a phone call from the Learning Manager. I got the job! You know when you do a happy dance? I did that!

'I was so, so pleased. I joined with Reuben Massiah, another Learning Facilitator - our first day was the first day of lockdown. I had dreams of walking to the Library, but it actually was from my bedroom upstairs to the computer in the living room. So that was bizarre, being introduced to the Library by the thing that’s always been my nemesis [technology].’


Can you tell us more about your previous work at libraries?

‘I started working at Islington Libraries as a Saturday assistant back in the mid-70s. Eventually I became a library advisor for racial groups in Islington; so I worked with the community. Those days – when Libraries had more funding – I would help community groups establish their own libraries.

'Then, I got the big jobs in Southwark and Lewisham as a Literature Development Officer. The role was to promote literature to the libraries, and to the wider community. And, because I was a writer and a storyteller, it extended – I did creative writing classes, book groups, storytelling training for families and librarians.

'I worked for a while in prisons, both men’s and women’s. I was a Reading Resident, where I developed book groups. It was very interesting, because you were working with people who had gone down a different path. Stories that I would tell children, I’d be telling these men and women, and for them it was really exciting. They’d say things like ‘if we’d had people like you in our lives, we wouldn’t be here now.’ It was one of the best times of my life, those couple of years I worked in those prisons.’


It’s those contributions to literature that earned you the Benson Medal and an honorary fellowship with the Royal Society of Literature. What do they mean to you?

‘They mean a lot. My mum and dad gave me my first exercise books where I would write my stories, so I always thank them first. Evelyn and Cecil Agard. They came from Guyana, South America, in the 1950s. They got married here, had my two younger sisters and me. I owe them everything.

'Mum was a nurse. She had five children, all girls, and she didn’t want any of us to be nurses. She was treated terribly. But she worked full time and brought us all up. Even though my mum was a night nurse, she made sure she was always there at my school plays in the morning. I was wondering, ‘when does she ever sleep?’ She was amazing.

‘My dad was a mathematician, he loved maths. He wanted to be an architect, but in the 50s, that wasn’t going to happen. So he worked at the British Oxygen Company as a Test Engineer and really stood up for the workers’ rights. We always used to go to Speaker’s Corner as children, so we were very political. Both my parents have passed now.

'And then, my beloved sister Brenda Agard, who passed in 2012. She was a photographer, writer extraordinaire, a wonderful person. And my Uncle John Agard - no relation to the poet - who told great stories. Those four people are very important to my life. I owe them everything.

'I always begin with family, because it’s so important. Our family’s very small now, but I’ve got my cousins, and my sister, and my nephew, and my sister’s partner. And I’ve always had a community of library people to help, they’ve just been fabulous. I’ve been very lucky. The medal is not just for me, but for all these people who have been in my journey.’

Sandra Benson Medal

Sandra A. Agard accepting the Benson Medal, July 2022, Royal Society of Literature/Adrian Pope.

In discussing some of the world’s most-loved writers who also earned the Benson medal and RSL Honorary Fellowships, Sandra went on to say:

‘Well, C. S. Lewis. The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe is one of my all-time favourite books! And I think Tolkien – my goodness! In the company of these greats.

‘When you set out to do this, you don’t think you’re going to be awarded anything, you just do it. I do it for love. I’ve always had a passion for libraries, and reading, and books, and to be able to be a part of somebody else’s journey, to get them writing, to get them reading, to get them loving literature and words. And I’m doing that now here at the Library.

‘I’m always promoting the British Library! This is our national library, and people need to know it’s their library too. When I tell people I work at the British Library, eyebrows raise, and they exalt it - but no, it’s your building. It’s our national library. You should come here too.’


What do you love about the British Library?

‘I love the sense of place. When people come in, their breaths are taken away. It’s really exciting. I love working with the smaller children – this place kind of swamps them, but yet they’re part of it.

‘Yesterday, we had a group from Manchester, young girls. They saw Jane Austen's desk and the Blake drawings in our Treasures Gallery. They’ve been studying these writers, and now to see their artefacts, it puts things into perspective. It’s exciting for them; their teacher was overwhelmed, they were overwhelmed. When you see the joy that it gives people; it’s wonderful.’


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

Mary Seacole autobiography

Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in Many Lands, 1857. Mary Seacole has often been described as the black Florence Nightingale, another nurse who came to public attention after reports of her selflessness in helping wounded soldiers during the Crimean War.

‘We have a first edition copy of Mary Seacole’s autobiography. Mary Seacole is very close to my heart. As a storyteller, I would wear a Georgian dress and re-tell her story through the eyes of her sister, Linda Grant. It was just fabulous!

‘So many people have remembered that. It was years ago, and a lot of people approach me and say ‘Oh, I remember you told Mary Seacole’s story!’ And to come into the Library and to see her original autobiography, which is still in print to this day, that, to me, is one of my favourite items.’

Phillis Wheatley poems

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Phillis Wheatley, 1773. Shelfmark: 992.a.34.

‘We’ve got Phillis Wheatley’s manuscripts as well. They call her the ‘slave poet’. She was a young girl in America who was taken from Africa in 1761, and renamed Phillis after the boat she was brought on. She was educated by the family who purchased her, the Wheatleys, and she was very adept at reading and writing. As a young girl, she wrote poetry against slavery.

‘It was amazing to see her original copies, because her books couldn’t be published in America, so they were published here. This is what we’ve got here at the British Library! Original from all those years ago. It’s also on our Black British Literature timeline, which looks at 50 writers over 400 years of Black writing in this country.’


Any book recommendations?

‘Oh everything, read, read, read, read! Well, Malorie Blackman, who was a children’s laureate, and recently won the PEN Pinter Prize. She’s just had an autobiography released, Just Sayin’: My Life in Words. Definitely her autobiography.

‘And dare I say, I’ve got a new one out called The Lion Keeper. It’s a children’s fact-fiction book that tells of a young boy who’s taken from Africa. He was brought to the Tower of London to look after the Lions.

‘Also, I would urge everybody to learn a poem that they always keep in their hearts. I have two: Grace Nichols’ Give Yourself a Hug, and Shel Silverstein’s Snowball. Those are my two favourites. So always keep a poem in your heart, that’s what I’d say.’


Interview by Max Burt