Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

3 posts from December 2023

15 December 2023

Knowledge under attack

Readers sat at desks by the King's Library.

On the last weekend of October, the British Library became the victim of a major cyber-attack, the impact of which continues to be felt by our staff, our partners and our millions of users.

This was a ransomware attack, by a criminal group known for such activity, and its effects were deep and extensive. Our online systems and services were massively disrupted, our website went down, and we initially lost access to even basic communication tools such as email.

We took immediate action to isolate and protect our network but significant damage was already done: having breached our systems, the attackers had destroyed their route of entry and much else besides, encrypting or deleting parts of our IT estate. They also copied a significant chunk of our data, which they attempted to auction online and, a month later, released most of it onto their site on the dark web.

The Library itself remains a crime scene, with a forensic investigation of our disrupted network still ongoing. In parallel, our teams are examining and analysing the almost 600 gigabytes of leaked material that the attackers dumped online – difficult and complex work that is likely to take months.

Impact and response

The impact of the attack was felt in our Reading Rooms in London and Yorkshire, where collection items could no longer be retrieved, and one of our core responsibilities as the national library – free access to our collection – was put on hold. Essential digital services including our catalogue, our website and our online learning resources went dark, with research services like our popular EThOS collection of more than 600,000 doctoral theses suddenly unavailable.

We alerted our users to the scale of the disruption using our social media channels. Thankfully, we have been able to keep our physical sites open to the public throughout, and although services in the Reading Rooms remain severely limited, the public areas at our St Pancras building are as busy and lively as they have ever been with visits, events and personal study. Our exhibitions on the literature of Fantasy and the writer Malorie Blackman continue to attract the crowds, and in the very week of the cyber-attack we were able to successfully host a five-day fringe event on AI in our Knowledge Centre.

Most fundamentally, we have continued to care for our precious physical collection, and can confirm that the vast datasets held in our Digital Library System, including the digital legal deposit content that it is our statutory duty to collect and preserve, are intact and safe from harm.


Although this kind of attack was something we had prepared for and rehearsed, and had taken steps to guard against, it was no less of a shock when it happened. It is our purpose to provide access to a collection of 170 million items – open to all and free at the point of use, for research, inspiration and enjoyment – and we found ourselves, that first weekend, at the receiving end of a smash-and-grab operation, and a crude attempt at extortion.

The people responsible for this cyber-attack stand against everything that libraries represent: openness, empowerment, and access to knowledge.

Our sense of outrage increased when the data the attackers stole was dumped onto the dark web. As soon as we were able to confirm it might include the data of Library users, we announced this publicly and emailed our users directly to alert them, and to encourage them to take sensible precautions to protect themselves.

We are continuing to collaborate with the Metropolitan Police and professional cyber security advisors to investigate the situation, and are receiving additional support from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). Should we find evidence of specific data that has been compromised we will alert the people affected as soon as we can.

Reflections and rebuilding

Our experience of the past two months has highlighted a great paradox for knowledge institutions in the digital age. Our deep commitment to openness, access and discovery means that we fully embrace the amazing possibilities that technology enables; while as custodians of our collections we also face an ever-increasing challenge in keeping our digital heritage safe from attack.

Libraries, research and education institutions are being targeted, whether for monetary gain or out of sheer malice. Society more widely, and all of us as individuals need to be alert to this fast-evolving threat. The NCSC provides excellent guidance on staying safe online, as well as specific guidance for individuals who may have been impacted by a data breach. For better or worse, everyone working at the Library now knows a lot more about the dangers of identity fraud than we did barely six weeks ago, and I would recommend to anyone the benefit of being both forewarned and forearmed.

Restoring access

Behind the scenes, teams across the Library have been working hard to develop hybrid services and workarounds that can restore some level of access to our collection, while a much broader programme of secure infrastructure rebuilding gets underway. We are as eager as our Readers to restore access to the collection, but we need to exercise exceptional care to ensure we do nothing to compound the risk of further attack.

From early in the new year you will begin to see a phased return of certain key services, starting with the most crucial of all, our main catalogue, a reference-only version of which will be back online from 15 January, further facilitating the manual ordering which is already available in our Reading Rooms. Other interim services will include increased on-site access to our manuscripts and special collections, and a bespoke inter-library loan capability designed to serve key sectors such as health, higher education and law. Each of these offerings will initially be somewhat different from our normal service, but together they will represent a crucial first stage on our road back to normality.

We know that the journey to full recovery will be a long one, but the weeks since the cyber-attack have demonstrated to me in abundance the expertise, energy and commitment to public service of our staff. This experience has also revealed the incredible understanding and generosity of our vast national and international community of users, supporters and partner institutions, who have patiently kept faith with us as we have navigated this unprecedented challenge. On behalf of all of us at the British Library – thank you.

Sir Roly Keating
Chief Executive

05 December 2023

Disruption to Public Lending Right (PLR) service

We’re continuing to experience a major technological outage due to a cyber-attack, which is affecting our website and online systems and services, including PLR which the Library administers.

Delay to Irish PLR payments

Unfortunately this means we’re currently unable to distribute Irish PLR statements, or make the payments that were planned for December. Once PLR services are restored, we’ll send out statements and where payments are due, these will be made as soon as we can. We know this may be worrying news and we’re sorry if you have been affected by this delay.

Registering for PLR

We’re currently unable to register new titles or users for PLR payments. However, the deadline to register for inclusion in next year’s payments is not until 30 June 2024. We hope to have a registration system working in advance of this date.

Your PLR data

We know that news of this incident may be unsettling and you may have concerns about your data. We know that the attackers are likely to have copied some data from our internal management databases containing the name, postal address and email address of some PLR users. There is currently no evidence that copies of identity documents used during PLR registration were compromised.

What can you do?

Where we have an email address we’ve contacted all PLR users who may have been affected. As our systems remain unavailable, you won’t be able to change the password you have used to access British Library or PLR services. However, if you use the same password to login to other, non-British Library services we recommend that you change it.

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) provides guidance on staying safe online, as well as specific guidance for individuals who may have been impacted by a data breach.

Over the coming months you should also be particularly alert for phishing emails and scam phone calls or text messages. The NCSC offers advice on how to spot these types of attack.

If you haven’t yet been contacted, or if you have any other questions, you can email us at [email protected]. Alternatively, you can contact our Data Protection Officer at [email protected]

Further updates on PLR services

While we anticipate restoring many of our services in the next few weeks, some disruption may persist for several months. At this point we’re unable to say how long PLR services will be disrupted or whether UK PLR payments will be affected too. However, we will update this blog and social media when we have further news to share.

Thank you for your patience and understanding.

04 December 2023

British Library school services

We’re currently experiencing a major technology outage due to a cyber-attack

However, most of our in-person and online events for schools in St Pancras and Leeds are going ahead.  

Workshops in London 

The Library in St Pancras remains fully open and we’re continuing to welcome schools as usual.

To book a free visit or find out more information, please email [email protected]. Booking is essential

Fantasy: Realms of Imagination exhibition workshops
Until 23 February 
English, English Literature | Primary: Years 3 – 6 / Secondary and FE: Years 7 – 13 

This workshop will lead your group through our major exhibition, Fantasy: Realms of Imagination. Along the way students will analyse the conventions of the fantasy genre and create their own narratives. 

Malorie Blackman: The Power of Stories exhibition workshops 
Primary: Years 3 – 6 / Secondary and FE: Years 7 – 13 

Celebrate one of Britain’s most read authors in our latest exhibition. Tailored workshops with our Learning Facilitators will take students on a tour of the exhibition and explore the creative process behind Malorie Blackman’s writing. 

Self-guided visits
60 minutes | Primary: Years 3 – 6 / Secondary and FE: Years 7 - 13 

These flexible visits enable you to lead your group to explore public spaces and Treasures Gallery. We provide a printed resource to support your visit with activities for learners and information about the Library for teachers. 

Making Artists’ Books
90 minutes | Art and Design | Primary: Years 3 – 6 / Secondary and FE: Years 7 – 13 

Learners will make their own artists’ books in this hands-on workshop. They will discover what an artist’s book is and why they are made. 

Exploring Sacred Texts
90 minutes | Religious Education | Primary: Years 4 – 6 / Secondary and FE: Years 7 – 13 

This workshop explores the richness and diversity of sacred texts from different religions. Learners will look at special texts on display in our Treasures Gallery and engage with items from our digitised collection.  

Once upon a Time: Tell a Story
60 minutes | English, Literacy | Primary: Years 1 – 2 

Students take a well-known story and develop storytelling skills through performance, strengthening their literacy and language skills. These sessions have been made possible thanks to support from Old Possum’s Practical Trust. 

Once upon a Time: Make a Story
60 minutes | English, Literacy | Primary: Years 1 – 2 

Students will create a new story as a class, developing their literacy and language skills through imaginative play. These sessions have been made possible thanks to support from Old Possum’s Practical Trust. 

Listen Up! Dive into Sound
90 minutes | English, Literacy, Cross-curricular | Primary: Years 4 – 6 

Hear recordings from our sound archive, from environmental sounds and speeches. This workshop explores how sound can transform a space and capture the imagination. 

Listen Up! Sound Lab
90 minutes | Music, Cross-curricular, Well-being | Primary: Years 4 – 6 

Students use a range of techniques to create, collect, amplify, mix, layer and record sound in this hands-on session. 

Research Matters
90 minutes| Information Literacy, Cross-curricular | Primary: Years 5 – 6 

Information literacy, investigation, observation, questioning and source analysis techniques feature in this workshop on research skills. 

Voyage into Maps
90 minutes | Geography, Art and Design, History | Primary: Years 3 – 6  

Students will explore maps on display in our Treasures Gallery, thinking critically about their many uses and styles. 

Windrush Voices
90 minutes | History, English Literature | Secondary and FE: Years 10 – 13 

This session explores the arrival of the Empire Windrush in Essex in 1948 and the wider social and historical context of this moment. Students will investigate the experiences of Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Exploring Black British Literature
120 minutes | English Literature | Secondary and FE: Years 10 – 13 

Explore the rich history of Black writing and literature in Britain. Students will reflect on the plurality of themes in a variety of Black British texts using digitised manuscripts and recordings from our collection. 

Sounds Familiar?
90 minutes | English Literature | Secondary and FE: Years 10 – 13 
Also available as an online workshop 

Uncover ways of analysing speech, accent and dialect. This session explores language change and variation, and regional vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar in the UK. 

Develop Your Writing: RLF Bridge
All-day session | History, English Literature, Cross-curricular | Secondary and FE: Years 12 – 13 
Also available as an online workshop 

This one-day workshop will improve students’ confidence in academic writing. Run by Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellows. 

Workshops and experiences in Leeds

Workshops and experiences in Leeds are still available. Scheduled bookings in Leeds will go ahead as planned. 

To book or find out more information, please email [email protected]

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens
At Temple Newsam 
All-day session | History | Secondary: Years 7 – 11 

Experience Tudor life and explore the turbulent relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Find out more on the Temple Newsam website

Write Like a Poet 
Delivered in your school. Exclusive to LS postcodes. 
English, Literacy, Drama | Primary: Years 3 – 6 

Learn new ways to tell stories through poetry. Respond to poems by James Berry, Grace Nichols and John Agard in this creative writing workshop.  

Graphic Novels Dramatised
Delivered in your school, exclusive to LS postcodes 
English, Literacy, Drama | Primary: Years 3 – 6 

Use drama to share stories in new ways. Explore the story and issues behind Sarah Garland’s graphic novel, Azzi in Between, in our interactive drama workshop.  

Sounds Like a Story
Delivered in your school, exclusive to LS postcodes 
English, Literacy, Drama | Primary: Years 3 – 6 

Explore the role of sound in storytelling, with Sally Pomme Clayton and Amin Hassanzadeh Sharif’s The Phoenix of Persia. Pupils will be introduced to vocal percussion and sound effect techniques. 

Step Inside Your Story

Our competition to win £50 of National Book Tokens for your school remains live until its scheduled close at 17.00 on 4 December 2023. Children are invited to make books about themselves. Adults can share children’s creations on X (Formerly Twitter), tagging @BL_Learning, or send photos by email to [email protected].  

For inspiration please watch our videos: 

Please contact us at [email protected]

  • For information about the prize and how we decide the winners
  • To request a copy of the competition terms and conditions.

Contacting us

While our systems are offline, you can contact the Library by emailing [email protected].  

This mailbox is checked between 08.30 to 16.30 Monday to Friday. Please note, however, that the Library is receiving a very high volume of enquiries at the moment. Please bear with our Customer Services team who will respond as soon as they can. We’d like to thank all of our users and partners for your continued understanding.