Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

4 posts from July 2023

27 July 2023

Following in the Footsteps of Adventurous Women | User Stories


Writer Rachel Hewitt used the British Library to research her non-fiction book, In Her Nature. Weaving together history and memoir, it’s a gripping exploration of how women encounter the great outdoors. The book was awarded the 2019 Writers Award for non-fiction by our Eccles Centre for American Studies   

The book starts with a story about a time when I went into a shop to buy some new running shoes. There was an overwhelming choice of running shoes on the shelves, but I was told by the shop assistant that, out of this plethora of different options, only four were fitted for women’s feet. When I asked why, he said – well, men have been running since Ancient Greece, but women only started in the 1970s, and so kit designers have been designing for the male form for thousands of years, but for women, only 50. 

At the time, I nodded and smiled, but afterwards I wondered if it were true. It suddenly seemed to me quite an extraordinary claim to make, that women only started running and hiking and mountaineering in the 1970s. But it was a claim I found repeated by a number of scholars and writers. One historical scholar described women’s place in sport as ‘handkerchief-fluttering spectators’. The cursory research I did led me to conclude that the man in the shop was right, but then I found Lizzie Le Blond. 


The photographs demolished what I’d been told 

She was a mountaineer, and a photographer of sport and outdoor landscapes. I came across a digital archive of thousands and thousands of photographs of women, charging up and down mountain slopes, playing ice hockey and tennis, tobogganing headfirst, 70 miles an hour, down the Cresta Run in St Moritz in Switzerland. This was in the 1880s and 1890s. The photographs demolished what I’d been told, and that stereotype of Victorian women as afraid to show an ankle, reclining on sofas. Instead, here they were, muscular, sweaty and getting joy out of sport. 

Lizzie’s photographs showed me a world I hadn’t known existed. She herself started mountaineering in the 1880s, and was incredibly successful and well known, but around the beginning of the 20th century, there was a shift in the culture of sport and outdoor leisure, in which women were progressively marginalised. The book is about why women were driven out of sport, and, arguably, out of feeling comfortable in the public sphere. For a long period in the 19th century, women’s outdoor achievements were celebrated, but now this history has been forgotten. 


My working life runs according to the Library

The British Library’s been my main place to work since I was doing my PhD. I used to have a very specific desk that I worked at. I think everyone has their own sense of which is their desk. I've always worked in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room, but when I was writing my first book, which is about the history of the Ordnance Survey, I did quite a lot of work in the Maps Reading Room.

Even now, when I live in Yorkshire and don’t go to the Library very often, I always think of my working life as running according to its opening hours. Eight o’clock is clocking off time, because that’s when the British Library shuts. I absolutely love the Boston Spa reading rooms, and did a lot of work on the book there. The staff are so helpful, and it feels like such a privilege to be in a village in North Yorkshire and able to access collections that normally you'd expect to have to travel four or five hours to see. 

I was completely over the moon when In Her Nature was awarded an Eccles Prize. The money was hugely helpful, and it was also a vote of confidence in the book. The support of the Eccles Centre, and the international texts and historical figures they introduced me to, helped me make the book more impactful.


There was a wealth of stories about witches

What I really love about the British Library is the speed with which books and journals can be ordered to your desk. It allows you to go down little rabbit holes, explore threads of ideas and ascertain quite quickly whether they're going to pay off into something that becomes an important part of a book.

The last chapter of In Her Nature is about a long-distance walking path called the Lyke Wake Walk, which spans the entire historical width of the North York Moors. There's this mythology that's built up around it. In Boston Spa, I was reading some old editions of The Dalesman magazine, dating back to 1955, by Bill Cowley, the person who devised the walk. He wanted any woman who completed it to be known as a witch. 

So I ordered up all these books on the witches of North Yorkshire, and realised that in Glaisdale, where Cowley lived, there was a wealth of stories about witches: women who enjoyed running through the heather; hares that might be witches in disguise. It chimed beautifully with the idea explored in my book that women are seen as transgressive when they seize their freedom outdoors. It also showed me the history of the area I live in – in a slightly different light. 


When I first started running, I was often afraid

In Her Nature includes a memoir strand, about my experiences running and exploring outdoors. I feel that those experiences are very much shaped by the fact that I'm female. I think any woman going outdoors – say, walking a particular path across a dark park at night – consciously or unconsciously undergoes some kind of risk assessment. She thinks – well, it would be ten minutes quicker for me to get home if I cross this park, but then again, I might be killed.

One of the things I do when I'm running is to weigh up the benefits of going for a run, versus the things that I'm scared of. When I first started running, I was often afraid. Writing the book, I came to realise that when I underwent these risk assessments in the past, I hadn’t valued how significant freedom is: the ability to move freely and comfortably around outdoor space. For women, it’s important to get out there and assert our right to freedom. 

As told to Lucy Peters

13 July 2023

Building a Minecraft Gateway to the World of Books | User Stories


Professor Sally Bushell drew on the British Library collections to create Litcraft, a project that builds worlds in Minecraft to inspire reluctant readers. Her most recent Litcraft game is called Steampunk Sherlock Holmes. Sally is a Professor of Romantic and Victorian Literature in the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University. 

My research specialism is in literary place and space. I’m very interested in how readers visualise and move through texts, and the act of reading as a form of mapping. My project Steampunk Sherlock Holmes uses two very different collections at the British Library. It doesn’t just use the texts; it also uses the maps. 

When my son was about eight, I watched him playing with Minecraft and it drew me into the game. Anyone who has a child aged between eight and 12 knows what Minecraft is. The user base is 141 million: it’s an international phenomenon. It’s sort of virtual Lego, in which the world is created around you as you move through it. It’s not like other computer games; you can play it in a goal-driven way, but you don’t have to. 


I built literary islands in Minecraft

I had the idea of building literary islands in Minecraft. With my former colleague Dr James Butler, I built the island from Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Kensuke's Kingdom, by Michael Morpurgo, and Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. I was thinking about the connection between the map and imaginative engagement with the world. In Minecraft, we can build the world and play in it. 

Litcraft is for all kids, but its target is children for whom reading is a challenge. They might be dyslexic; they might have low ability; they might be reading in their second language. The main reason these children are reluctant readers is because they never achieve a state of visualisation. To enjoy reading, you have to achieve a flow state, when you’re lost in a book. 


The game world is like a different way of reading

We use Litcraft in schools. We always start with the whole class reading through a text. Then they go into the game, and do an activity that re-enacts what they’ve just read. For example, when we did Treasure Island, in the text, the young protagonist Jim Hawkins goes ashore with the pirates, and runs all over the island. For the first task in the game, you’ve got to go over the island and find stuff. You’re reading, then playing. 

It’s very blocky in appearance, so students can imagine the world for themselves. When you’re reading, you can only do what the narrative allows you to do, but the game world is like a different way of reading. I’d have absolutely loved it as a kid. 


We’ve mapped Sherlock Holmes’ adventures

My latest project is called Steampunk Sherlock Holmes. It’s my first time creating a Minecraft build for older kids – the Sherlock Holmes story The Sign of Four is a GCSE text. We’re partnering with a Minecraft design company, Blockworks, to build the world of the text, giving them all the information about the literary side, and mapping the text onto a real-world map.

We’re taking philanthropist Charles Booth’s map of London poverty, which is held by the London School of Economics, as a base template on which to build the Minecraft world. It’s from exactly the same period, the 1890s. We’ve mapped Sherlock Holmes’ narratives onto that map; all of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Where are they actually set? Where does he actually go? 

We found two really useful items in the British Library maps collection: the Ordnance Survey London Sheets, and Charles E. Goad Ltd.’s Fire and Insurance Maps from 1885, which are unbelievably detailed. The level of detail on the London Sheets is probably higher than on modern maps. The highest level of detail is on the Goad maps – you can find bizarre things on them, like a chocolate factory in the middle of the slums. 


221B Baker Street doesn’t actually exist

We used the amazing quality of the mapping in 1890s London to find pockets of accurate detail. For example, 221B Baker Street, where Holmes is supposed to live, doesn’t actually exist. When you look at these early maps, you can see that there’s nothing there. 

In his Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle is choosing to write about areas of the city that are still being developed. He gives you real names, like Regent’s Park or Waterloo Bridge, and then nests his narrative within them. It’s so subtle that you don’t necessarily notice it. In his story The Man with the Twisted Lip, he writes, ‘there is a trapdoor at the back of that building, near the corner of Paul’s Wharf, which could tell some strange tales of what has passed through it on moonless nights.’ We found Paul’s Wharf on the map, but everything else in that narrative has a fictional name.

The stories will be accurately mapped, but then we’ve also got all this steampunk Victorian stuff. We’re only using things that were designed in the Victorian period, but they’re crazy contraptions, like airships. In the game, you can walk around in Victorian London and come across weird elements from stories, or you can go, right, I’m going to follow this story. I want it to be like a literary experience, in Minecraft. 


Libraries are the most important cultural spaces

With other games, people grow out of them, but Minecraft is really interesting. My son started playing it again last summer, when he was 14. Of course the advantage of using Minecraft in schools is that all the kids know how to play it, so you haven't got to teach them anything, and in fact their level is often much higher than the teachers’.

The first time I went to the British Library was long before my PhD; I didn’t even know what research meant. It was a very aspirational space for me. Libraries are the most important cultural spaces we have. If I had to pick a favourite room inside the Library, it would be the Rare Books & Music Reading Room. Also, I absolutely love the King’s Library; the glass tower of books. I think it’s fabulous. 


As told to Lucy Peters

10 July 2023

50 facts about the British Library

 By Elliot Sinclair, Web Editor

Have you heard about our book hospital in the basements or the time Lenin tried to get a Reader Pass? To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the British Library, here are 50 less-known facts about us – from our buildings and collections, to what goes on behind the scenes.

You’ll never see us in the same way again… 

3D model of the Library
3D model of the Library
  1. 10 million bricks (all individually handmade) were used for the construction of our London building.

  2. The building looks like a ship if viewed from the right angle. Architect Sir Colin St. John Wilson was formerly a naval lieutenant, and his nautical influences are dotted all around the building. Look at the 3D model of the building on the Upper Ground Floor and you’ll see what we mean.

  3. You may be surprised to know that the majority of our collection is not in fact stored in our London site. 70% of it is housed in our other site in Yorkshire.

  4. Our collections include over 170 million items from almost every language and faith group.

  5. In our collections you can find: 13.5 million printed books and e-books; 310,000 manuscript volumes; 60 million patents; 60 million newspapers; over 4 million maps; over 260,000 journal titles; 7 million sound recordings; 8 million stamps, and over 500 terabytes of preserved data in our UK Web Archive.

  6. Our oldest item is an Egyptian stela from 3,600 years ago, containing a hymn to the god of the underworld Osiris, written in hieroglyphics.

  7. Also in our collections you’ll find a postage stamp that talks.

  8. The leather wrappings of the handrails inside the lifts, on doors and around the Library on our London site are inspired by bookbindings.

    Our bookbinding-inspired handrails

  9. Ever wondered about why there’s a large glass tower of books right in the centre of our London building? This is the King’s Library, which houses the books collected by King George III (reigned 1760–1820). George IV insisted that his father’s collection should be displayed ‘entire, and separate from the rest of the Library… in a repository to be appropriated exclusively for that purpose’.

    Kings Tower
    King's Tower

  10. Our digital collections amount to over 1 petabyte – equivalent to almost 3.5 years of non-stop HD-quality video footage.

  11. If someone read one book a day from the King’s Library, it would take them 219 years to read everything in the collection.
  1. In our collections we have an Edwardian equivalent to today’s GPS, used for navigating the roads while driving.

    A set of maps and lenses
    The Micro Motor Map – a forerunner to today’s GPS
  1. Our physical collections occupy over 746km of total shelving – equivalent to the distance from London to Aberdeen.

  2. Every weekday a lorry transports more than 1,000 collection items between our Yorkshire and London sites for Readers.

  3. If you see five items each day, it would take you over 80,000 years to see the whole of our collection.

  4. If you look carefully at our red bricks on our London building, you’ll notice smiley face curves etched into each of them. This is a result of gas escape during the heating process in the kiln which creates small cavities at the surfaces.

    The smiley-faced bricks
  1. Our King’s Library tower has a lookalike across the globe: check out Yale University's Beinecke Library.
  1. We acquire approximately 8km of new books each year.
  1. Our National Newspaper Building on our Yorkshire site uses robotic cranes to retrieve collection items.

  1. We have a board game in our collections that uses an actual London Underground map from 1908 – featuring stations no longer in use such as South Kentish Town.
  1. Our clock tower on our London site is partially inspired by WM Dudok's town hall in Hilversum, Netherlands, and is not merely decorative but also a ventilation shaft, serving to air the five levels of basement.
  1. While our London building is home to millions of books, in our stonework resides oysters, plants and snails – all millions of years old. Many of these fossils can be spotted in the floor of our Piazza. Why not go on a fossil hunt?

    Spot the snails trapped in the Hauteville limestone on our Piazza
  1. A lock of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s hair and his ashes can be found among our collections.
  1. If you look carefully at the installation of eight rocks on plinths on the Piazza of our London site, you’ll notice little human figures incised into each one. This sculpture was created by Antony Gormley (famous for Angel of the North).

    'Planets' art installation featuring stones with human features
    Art installation on the Piazza
  1. Our mysteriously-named Private Case contains erotic printed fiction and poetry from the late 17th to 20th centuries, often with saucy engraved illustrations.
  1. Our Reading Rooms have welcomed many famous people – both in recent times and historically. Even Lenin applied for a ‘Reader ticket’ to use our former Reading Room, adopting the pseudonym Jacob Richter to cover his tracks from the Russian authorities.
  1. On the approach to the escalators in the Entrance Hall are two empty plinths which are relics of where the original turnstiles into the Library once stood. Formerly, only those lucky enough to have a Reader’s Pass could enter past this point as the majority of the building was only accessible to researchers.
  1. We have a 2,000 year-old homework book from Egypt in our collections.

  1. It takes between 6–15 minutes for a collection item to reach the Reading Rooms after you’ve placed an order.
  1. Our network of airport-style conveyor belts can deliver up to 3,000 items a day to Readers.
  1. Due to the sheer number of new items we acquire each year, our books are not organised by subject area (sorry to all you library geeks out there, we don’t in fact use the Dewey Decimal System!) Instead, a different set of criteria is used based on the size of the publication, language, how niche it is and how often it is requested by Readers. Because of this, in the basements you’d be able to find a book about American football right next to one about the birds of Mongolia!
  1. Unusual titled books in our collection include: The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification (2006); Fish Who Answer the Telephone: And Other Studies in Experimental Biology (1937); What is a Cow? And Other Questions that might Occur to you when Walking the Thames Path (2000); The Art of Faking Exhibition Poultry (1934); How to Enjoy your Weeds (1973); The Giant Cabbage of the Channel Islands (1974); How to Get Fat (1865); Searching for Railway Telegraph Insulators (1982) and How to Avoid Work (1949).
  1. Our Yorkshire site has a surprising wartime history, sitting on what was once the Royal Ordnance Factory Thorp Arch, which produced explosives and other artillery equipment during World War II.
  1. We receive a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland through legal deposit. Last year we received over 500,000 printed and digital items and over 100 terabytes from the UK web domain.
  1. Jane Austen’s writing desk and spectacles sit among our collections.
  1. Beneath the main library in our London site are five levels of basement where the majority of the building’s collection items are stored. Reaching 24 metres below ground – the equivalent of an eight-storey building – the basements run as deep as the Victoria line, which runs alongside them.

    The 'Chiller Hall' in our basements
  1. Down in our basements is our salvage recovery area – a kind of book hospital – where conservators can assess any damage to collection items in the event of an emergency and decide what treatments are needed.
  1. If the building’s air condition system fails and our galleries go above the required temperatures, a backup cooling device is deployed which uses nine buckets of ice stored down in the basements.

    Ice buckets 2
    Ice buckets
  1. There are over 40 different types of shelving used across the basements to maximise use of storage space and provide the most appropriate housing for different types of items.
  1. The Plant Room in Basement 1 of our London site is the size of six international football pitches.
  1. In our collections we have the tuning fork that Beethoven used (which also passed into the hands of fellow composers Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams).
  1. Our most precious items are kept in special chambers, known as strongrooms, which automatically release a gas called Inergen (made up of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and argon) to extinguish flames without the need for water.
  1. We hold the earliest surviving dated piece of printing, the Diamond Sūtra, produced in the year 868AD.
  1. We welcome 1.6 million visitors through our door every year 
  1. Each year over 1.5 million items are consulted in our Reading Rooms.
  1. Our site in London is the largest UK public building constructed in the 20th century.
  1. The building sits on the site of an old rail goods yard. 
  1. In our collections you’ll find a miniature boat used for the transport of mail from a remote island on the western edge of Scotland between 1876 and 1930.

    St Kilda Mail Boat
    St Kilda mail boat
  1. Our London site is a Listed Building – in 2015 Sir Colin St John Wilson’s building was awarded Grade I listed status; along with the Lloyds Building, it’s one of the youngest buildings to achieve such status.
  1. We even have a recording of Florence Nightingale’s voice in our collections.