Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

7 posts from October 2023

26 October 2023

Creating Art Using the Sound Archive | User Stories


Nicholas Calvin Mwakatobe is a filmmaker, photographer and curator based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is creating short films using the British Library’s sound archive collections as an online artist in residence for Resonations 2023, a programme supported by the British Council

It’s really exciting to be an artist in residence with the British Library. It’s an opportunity to explore recordings from the past which provide a unique point of access to history. Some of the stories, spoken words and sounds are not recorded anywhere else. It gives you a visceral connection to a time that is now gone. 

The way that we tell our own stories is a tool for survival. I'm interested in different ways in which we remember the past and foresee the future, whether through paintings, stories or songs, and deal with the question of who we are. The residency gives me better ways of unearthing local stories. 


For an artist, this is very rich ground

An archive is one way of accessing the past. But each individual, group or community that has been recorded has their own way of thinking about and caring for their history. It’s interesting to combine these two ways of approaching the past, the living system and the recording. The oral tradition is very susceptible to change. It evolves; it lives; it morphs. The archive always stays the same. For an artist, this is very rich ground for new questions.  

So far, I have listened to quite a few recordings and explored different ideas. I’m very interested in how the Swahili language has evolved over time. Someone who exemplifies the way the language spread and changed is a musician, Siti binti Saad, whose music is recorded in the Library’s sound archive. She was born in 1880 and died in 1950. In the 1920s and 1930s, she was a very prominent musician on the island of Zanzibar. The genre that she was singing in was taarab, which drew influences from countries across the Indian Ocean.


The recordings capture centuries of interchange

For centuries, before the first Europeans set foot in Africa, people used to travel in Dhow sailboats between the coast of East Africa, the Persian Gulf, and India, as far as China. This travelling resulted in a lot of cultural exchanges: music; food; architecture. Saad’s music blends sounds from across the regions where the Dhow boats travelled. 

After she became famous as a taarab musician, she performed internationally. The recordings we have of Siti encapsulate centuries of interchange between the coast of East Africa and the regions around the Indian Ocean. If you look deeply enough, they point you in so many different directions. 


The archive becomes a portal through time

I want to go back to the community from which these materials were recorded, and the people who are still performing Saad’s music as standard taraab repertoire. I’ll use film to capture the sound, the people, the bodies that still, in some way, echo and carry forward these voices from the past. 

I also found recordings of Ali Swahili, a prisoner of war in Berlin in 1918. They say he was born in Comoros, but he spoke and sang in Swahili. He was recorded several times in October and November of 1918. The fact that I can listen to these recordings in Swahili, made in a prisoner-of-war camp, inspires questions about how he ended up there. Why was someone interested in recording him? This type of recording carries more than just sound waves. The archive becomes a portal through time.


The stories you’re telling are sometimes larger than you

My job is to connect all these different elements through film and put them in conversation with each other. Then we ask, how do we move forward from here? We know these recordings were made within very specific political and socio-economic contexts, a good number of them during colonial times, whether in the period from the 1880s to the 1920s, when the Germans were controlling the East African territory, or from the 1920s to the 1960s, when the British were here. 

As an artist, the stories that you're telling are sometimes larger than you. If you’re a filmmaker, especially if you are a documentary filmmaker, you are a channel for all these voices to say something. I think at the core of it all is curiosity, having questions that you can’t answer. You find yourself taking on the role of a photographer, a filmmaker, a curator, depending on what stories you are trying to pursue. It’s almost as if each story has its own demands, and you are responding to them. 


There are not many sound repositories around

My residency is remote, but you can interact with the Library’s sound archive online. The Library has helped me access material and answer questions. Being there physically would create different kinds of possibilities. But I can do a lot with the access that I have. 

There are not many sound repositories around. The thing that hooked me on the Library’s archive early on was that I was looking at the website and saw Swahili recordings from the 1930s that were made in India. I was already interested in the movement of people, trades, goods and ideas across the Indian Ocean. To see that the recordings were made in India and sung in Swahili was fascinating to me. On a personal level, just the fact that there were a lot of Swahili recordings within the archive was a point of excitement. I was able to explore something that I have a connection with.

As told to Lucy Peters


Relevant recordings

Siti binti Saad: Explore the British Library Search - siti binti saad (

Francis mwa Kitime: Explore the British Library Search - Kitime (

25 October 2023

Interview with Sveta Dorosheva, artist for Fantasy: Realms of Imagination

The incredible artwork for our exhibition, Fantasy: Realms of Imagination, was created by hand by illustrator Sveta Dorosheva. She seamlessly wove together the four realms of our exhibition: fairy tales and folklore, worlds and portals, epics and quests, and the weird and uncanny – each area populated with myriad characters and creatures from literature and myth across the world.

We sat down with Sveta to find out more about her, the artwork itself, and where she draws her inspiration from.

Realms of imagination copy

We recommend viewing the full-sized illustration here. Zoom in and explore Sveta’s universe for yourself!

You can also find a labelled guide to all the characters and creatures in Sveta's artwork near the bottom of this page.


Which fantasy universes were you most inspired by in this illustration?

Fairy tales and myths, in the first place. As a child, I had very weak health and spent many hours in bed, covered with mustard leaves or cupping-glasses, while dad read fairy tales to me.

I was so in love with this project because it kind of maps perfectly onto my obsessions with all things weird and wonderful: tales, myths, obscure science and mysterious arts like alchemy, medieval bestiaries, etc.

I think I keep returning to fairy tales because it's a way to smuggle a sense of wonder from childhood into adult life. When I was a kid and dad read those tales to me, I perceived a frog turning into a prince and day turning into night as the same type of metamorphosis that makes the world tick. Kids generally don't divide things into real and unreal.

Sveta 1

When I wasn’t sick, I spent most of my time outdoors with other kids. The vicinities (I grew up in Zaporizhzhya in Ukraine, at that time part of the USSR) were a small forest, a city mortuary, and the Red River, complete with red fish. The river was actually red from factory waste, and back then, I used to think that all small rivers were red. It fell into a large river in beautiful red stripes at the spot of the local nudist beach, replete with brilliantly scarlet nudists. One has to admit, I grew up in a fairy tale of sorts – it was that bizarre.

So, as a kid I spent half of my time in that surreal world, and the other half in fairy tale books. I was enthralled by their murky, fickle world. Everything turned into everything else. Beasts talked and threw off their skins to turn into humans. Mysterious water revived the dead. A forest witch lived in a house on chicken legs and had a flipping bed that tossed incautious travellers into the underworld.

There was even a version of Donkeyskin, where the girl into an entangled cow’s stomach by her stepmother. She predicted that "the enchantment will be broken only if the king kisses you, ha-ha-ha!" I remember trying to imagine that, and thinking if there’s a happy ending to that story, the world might not be such a hard place to live, right?

At the time, I didn't perceive any of this as weird or unreal. These were just part of a fascinating plot. There was no division into normal and unusual. Everything was unusual, nothing was normal. That kind of perception, smuggled from childhood into adult life, is still with me when I draw: treat fantasy and reality as one and the same.


Who’s your favourite character in the illustration?

I got a kick doing every little nook of it, can't pick a favourite section! But as for characters, I guess Gregor Samsa reading Kafka is my personal favourite. I was on a surreal and absurd literature spree more than once in recent years - I take a lot of comfort in it, when I feel discombobulated and unable to make sense of the world. And each time I feel compelled to re-read Metamorphosis just for the feeling of poignant realisation that, you know, it's life - sometimes you just wake up inexplicably transformed into a huge cockroach. Despite being clueless as to what's going on and how long it will last, you still have to carry on with your life somehow.

Evidently, people have been there before - bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the rapid change or lost in the weird and incomprehensible reality around them. Kafka has diligently documented that for us to take comfort in during troubled times.

Sveta Gregor Samsa


Were there any parts of the design that were particularly challenging?

The whole thing was technically challenging to put together. The task was to seamlessly weave together four realms corresponding to sections of the exhibition (fairy tales and folklore, worlds and portals, epics and quests, and weird and uncanny) into a single composition, each populated with its own characters and imbued with a relevant mood. Changing a single detail often entailed redoing half the composition. 


How long did it take you to create the design?

My longest stage is always the first one - research and ideas. Coming up with the first draft. In this case, it was a very detailed draft, since with so many characters, themes and landscape elements in a black and white image, one of the key things was to figure out the tonal scheme and how all of it would work. So my first draft was basically a finished drawing in pencil, just to try and see how it comes together. That took over a month. Then there was some feedback and revisions. Mostly, the ‘portals’ part got reworked into a subterraneous library with secret passages and mysterious visitors.

The final art was larger than the draft (A1), and done with a dip drawing nib in ink, so that, too, took me about three weeks, maybe a month.

Sveta 2


Are you a fan of fantasy, or any of its subgenres? Do you have any particular favourites?

I think my favourite type of fantasy and weird literature is when a book is full of uncanny and surreal stuff, yet it reads like a realistic novel. Ned Beauman is mind-blowing that way, everything he’s written, but especially The Teleportation Accident and Madness is Better than Defeat. John Crowley’s Aegypt series – I lived inside his books, but the odd thing is, I had a feeling that the author had lived inside my head for quite some time too. Otherwise, how would he know so much about me?

George Saunders - absolutely unique, all of his short story collections. After reading these authors I feel orphaned and forlorn, because I can't read anything else and instantly start missing the time I had spent inside their books. I owe them some of the happiest hours of my life. 

Jeffrey Ford and China Miéville too. I discovered China Miéville while working on this project, and have been reading his Bas-Lag trilogy throughout the summer. 


This illustration was created by hand by Sveta Dorosheva especially for the exhibition Fantasy: Realms of Imagination. Originally from Ukraine and currently based in Israel, Sveta works in areas of narrative art and illustration. A deep fascination for myth and fairytales, among other things, finds its way into her detailed and award-winning works.

More information and examples of her work can be found at

You can also follow Sveta on Instagram @sveta_illustrations.

Set out on a legendary quest through the impossible worlds of fantasy by visiting our new exhibition Fantasy: Realms of Imagination, opening on Friday 27 October.

13 October 2023

Untangling the History of Social Dance | User Stories


Choreographer Robert Hylton has used the British Library throughout his career to research the history of dance. As a Visiting Fellow at the British Library’s Eccles Centre in 2019, he explored the connections between street dance and the African diaspora. His book Dancing in Time: The History of Moving And Shaking was published by the Library in 2022.

When you walk into the foyer of the British Library, there’s an immediate sense of purpose. All kinds of different people are there to gain access to knowledge. Libraries are part of the human experience: they’re about trying to understand who we are; understanding the future through the past. 

I’ve danced since I was a child. When hip-hop came along, in the early 80s, I started copying the breaking and popping I saw on TV. On Saturday afternoons, I used to go and dance in a club in Newcastle called Tiffany’s. I grew up just outside of Sunderland, so Tiffany’s gave me more access to dance. 

In 1986, I left school, and a couple of years later I joined a UK jazz dance crew in Newcastle called Bamboozle, based at an organization called Dance City. We ended up performing at a festival at Newcastle Theatre Royal, on the same bill as Rambert and the Royal Ballet. Then I auditioned for the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and got in. After my degree, I was at the Phoenix Dance Theatre company as an apprentice, but after that, I went back to street dance. 


I travelled the world performing

I started doing hip-hop choreography and hip-hop theatre, sometimes mixing it with contemporary dance. Combining abstract, contemporary dance with popping and breaking got me a lot of attention. I got funding, and travelled the world performing for a few years. Then I started doing commercial choreography, for brands like McDonald’s, Foot Locker and Nescafé.

A friend of mine told me about an MA in Performance Arts at Northampton University, and I applied and got funding. I was looking at the vocabulary of popping. There are multiple different techniques, called things like waving, King Tut, scarecrow and dime stops, which you mix together when you improvise. 

I’m currently doing a PhD looking at the thought process behind popping improvisation. As a dancer, you carry with you the images that you see in books, videos or lived experience, and they become part of your own bookshelf within your body. When you improvise, you take this embodied knowledge into the real world – by dancing. 


I’ve always studied dance

In 2019, I did a visiting fellowship at the Library’s Eccles Centre. My project was called ‘Dancing in the Archives’. I started going to the Library when I discovered that some of the books I wanted to use for my research into the history of dance were quite rare or too expensive. I saw the fellowship advertised, applied and got it. It gave me a year and a half to look deeper into pre-20th century Black African diaspora dances. These eventually became present-day hip-hop dance, one of the most innovative forms of dance in the world. 

At the end of my Eccles Centre Fellowship, I wrote a blog post for the Library about my research. I sent it in just before the Covid lockdown started. I think the Library already wanted to publish a book featuring some of the dance images they had in their archives. There must have been somebody who saw my blog and said, I think he could do it. 

They sent me an email and I said yes. I hadn’t written on that level before, but I do like a challenge. I had to use my experience as a performer and choreographer to help the reader imagine themselves in the pictures. The book, Dancing in Time, becomes a more immersive reading experience because it was written by someone who understands dance. 

I’ve always studied dance. When I was a kid, I used to have a VHS tape next to the TV, and I’d record anything dance-related that I was interested in. I wanted to understand it and keep an archive of it. In the 80s and 90s, information about hip-hop and breaking was quite fractured. When the internet came out, all of a sudden you had access to more understanding about what it was. When you start working professionally and teaching, you want to get into research to make sure you have knowledge of dance vocabulary and history. Experimentation in choreography is built on research. 


Hip-hop is based on African diaspora social dances

Studying hip-hop takes you back to Jazz dance, which takes you back to Ragtime. Hip-hop didn’t really start fifty years ago; it’s based on African diaspora social dances, which when you go further back, begin in African dance, disrupted as a result of slavery. Through slavery, European partner dances and African-based dances were blended together. This is where dances like Lindy Hop and Tango come from. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance by Marshall and Jean Stearns gives a useful account of the history of African dance. 

The dance illustrations in the Library’s collection are exceptional, and yet they were probably drawn from memory. The more we revisit history, the more we understand about ourselves and our culture. We can even find things that might have been missed the first time around. Usually, dances from the Black diaspora would have been described previously as primitive or exotic, when in reality the dance language is extremely sophisticated. Because of the nature of white hierarchy, important cultural knowledge would have been missed. Now hip-hop has to take up the task of relearning its history from a Black perspective. 

I think having a library is just as much a part of being human as having a cupboard full of food. It keeps us alive and healthy. With a cupboard full of food, you can learn different recipes and different ways to cook. If you have a library, you can learn different ways to think. It’s how we feed ourselves as human beings. 

As told to Lucy Peters