01 June 2023
Behind the Scenes at the British Library: Jamal Mohamed, Community Project Coordinator
Meet Jamal Mohamed, the British Library’s Community Project Coordinator.
‘We had show and tells related to indigenous African knowledge of medicinal plants’
I'm a member of the Community Engagement team, who try to be a bridge between the library and the community surrounding the building. We focus our efforts on four political wards: Somers Town, King's Cross, Bloomsbury and Regent's Park.
I started a taster session programme where we take items from the collection and build mini exhibitions around them for communities that might not see themselves represented in the wider exhibitions. In the last batch I ran we had show-and-tells related to women in the East European collection, indigenous African knowledge of medicinal plants, and Punjabi folk tales.
I ran a session for Ramadan about Islamic collections that we have here at the Library, and people loved the fact that different collection areas were represented. We had items from India, the Middle East and Africa. For each session we include 10 to 15 items.
If a local group comes to us and they want to tour the building, we'll help arrange it. If a group wants to see an exhibition, we'll sort out tickets for them. If a group wants to come and use a space to host their own project, we'll try to accommodate that and find space.
‘I’ve been volunteering since I was 12’
I’ve been volunteering on and off, since I was 12, for the Somali Youth Development Resource Centre (I’m half Somali). They were created to tackle inequalities in terms of education and crime in the Somali community in Camden. When I graduated, in 2020, I worked with them part-time on the mentoring scheme. We started online, on Zoom, but before I left we managed to get it back into two schools in Camden and I was delivering sessions every week.
I studied public relations and that’s all about building and maintaining relationships. I went on a work placement in the summer of my second year at a commercial PR agency but it didn’t feel like the work I wanted to do. So I continued at the SYDRC and through that I found out about the job here at the Library.
‘Without the conservators, items would just crumble away’
People have made me feel very welcome here. Especially colleagues who aren’t responsible for directly engaging with people, but who share their time and expertise to help my team on our projects. Without the help of the curators and the reference specialists, we wouldn’t be able to run the taster session programme.
The reading room staff, the reference specialists, the front-of-house teams; they're all amazing. And the conservators: without them, items would just crumble away and be damaged.
‘I really appreciate the level of respect this item’s been given’
My favourite items in the Library’s collection are slabs of wood, about a metre in length. These wooden slabs were used in rural Somali villages to teach Arabic or the Quran – the teacher would write on them and hold them up for the class to see. One of them had a verse from the Quran on it. The way it was handled made me feel proud and pleased because it was treated with so much care. It was in a really nice box. I was told to be careful with it, in terms of not allowing any food or drink near it, and not allowing people to touch it, because it’s a very delicate and important piece.
That really struck me because first, I was like, how’s it ended up here? And second, I was like, well, I really appreciate the level of respect it’s been given. I asked, but it wasn’t on the system how it had got there. A lot of these things are basically taken as part of colonial history, or it was donated by someone.
‘We know a local storyteller who wants to run children’s storytelling mornings’
If you live locally, one thing to keep an eye out for is the Last Word community space, which will be coming to the piazza, hopefully, this summer. That will be an opportunity for us to increase co-curation and co-development projects with community groups, to programme that space and make sure that local people feel welcome and represented at the library.
We want to encourage community groups to lead on their own projects. We provide a space and some resources. We’ve had conversations with loads of people locally who want to run sessions. We know a local storyteller who wants to run children's storytelling mornings. We have a local creative group that want to run a sharing space. Hopefully we'll launch sometime in the summer.