10 October 2021
‘When I was growing up, libraries were an escape into a whole world of imagination that I hadn’t known existed before.’
Concluding Libraries Week 2021, and part of our new series Library Lives, we speak to our Chief Librarian of the British Library, Liz Jolly about how libraries have changed and their role in improving people’s lives.
Where was your local library growing up?
My local library was Winchmore Hill public library in the borough of Enfield, Greater London. It was also the place I had my first Saturday job.
What’s your favourite thing to do in a library?
I think libraries are about learning, so my favourite thing is to learn with other people, and with an amazing variety of resources in all formats.
What’s your favourite library in the UK?
Manchester Central Library. I was a student there in the 1980s before university libraries were open at the weekend and I spent many Saturdays there. Actually, I spent many Saturdays there putting my books down and going off shopping in town! But I did also spend some time looking at the amazing domed ceiling and with its quotation, 'Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom; and with all thy getting, get understanding'.
Which library would you love to visit?
I’d really like to visit the Oodi, the new Central Library in Helsinki, Finland.
What three words would you choose to sum up being a librarian?
Facilitating, learning and communities.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be a train driver.
What don’t people know about libraries?
I suspect that people think about libraries as being all about books. I think that libraries are about learning. The library academic David Lankes has written that ‘the mission of librarians is to facilitate knowledge creation in their communities’, and I think that this sums up what we’re about: far more than thinking just about collections, just about quiet spaces, and just about staff.
Libraries are where all these things interact and are very much about the people and the communities they serve.
What’s your favourite book?
My favourite book, which I’ve recently discovered, is The Street by Ann Petry. This tells the story of a Black single mother in New York in the 1940s.
Who is your favourite fictional librarian?
Serena Laburnam, heroine of The Librarian and the Robbers by Margaret Mahy. She's a fantastic role model.
What did libraries mean to you growing up?
I grew up in a household that couldn’t afford books, so a library was a place where anyone could have access to books, so it was an escape into a whole world of imagination that I hadn’t known existed before.
As I got older and became interested in societal issues, libraries became somewhere for me that would enable people to learn, both in terms of academic success and learning to ‘be’ - in the Carl Rogers sense. For me they became a key element in creating a more just, fair and equal society.
How have things changed in libraries since you qualified?
Things have changed dramatically. When I qualified in 1990, libraries were very much seen as places where one went to do quiet, silent, individual study and librarians were gatekeepers of information and knowledge.
I think it was assumed, particularly in the higher education sector where my background is, that people learnt in a certain way, which was silent, individual study. Over the past 30 years I think research has proved that learning happens in multiple ways and that libraries need to reflect that in the way that they are designed, in the spaces that they provide, and in the way that staff interact with their communities.
Interview by Ellen Morgan / Hannah Gabrielle
We spoke to people who have professional registration status as a librarian via the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals or who have an academic qualification such as a first degree, a postgraduate diploma or a Master’s degree in library and information studies or librarianship.
Is this you? If you’d like to feature in Library Lives, get in touch with [email protected]
Would you like this to be you? Find out more about becoming a librarian on the CILIP website
29 March 2021
In our monthly blog series we go behind the scenes at the Library to introduce you to our people and the many ways they work to bring our collection to everyone. Today we meet Amber Perrier, Community Engagement Officer.
“I work with our local St Pancras community, especially often overlooked groups. It’s grass roots engagement connecting us with our neighbours.”
Tell us about your role?
Amber is our Community Engagement Officer, tasked with engaging our hyper-local community with the British Library in St Pancras, London. Her ‘patch’ includes Somers Town, King’s Cross, Bloomsbury, the Regents Park Estate and other parts of the London Borough of Camden.
She works closely with our Welcome Team and Events and Learning Teams to encourage local families to use the British Library, helping adults register for reader passes and connecting local entrepreneurs with our Business and IP Centre.
Her outreach activity also involves popping into Somali and Bangladeshi community centres to chat to people about our services and local projects such as St Pancras Transformed which may have an impact on residents.
“One of my favourite projects is The Story Garden, it’s a community garden and is open to everyone. As well as growing crops, we’ve run therapeutic arts and crafts events in the polytunnels, and provided a make space for St Martin’s students.”
The Story Garden (2019)
How did you get into this field?
Amber joined us four years ago on a placement under the Culture& traineeship programme, which aims to increase workforce diversity in the heritage sector. During her one-year traineeship she shadowed Library colleagues in Conservation, Basements and the Asian and African Collections and paid reciprocal visits to her cohort at the British Museum and the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.
At the end of the programme, she had gained a QCF Level 3 qualification in Cultural Heritage and secured a permanent role as a Community Engagement Assistant at the Library – and since been promoted to an Officer position.
“I’d already established relationships with the local community and it was good to continue building these bridges.”
Prior to joining the Library, Amber studied Fine Art at the University of East London and volunteered with community arts organisation Rosetta Arts in Newham.
How has Covid-19 changed the way you work?
With all in-person community engagement activities suspended in 2020-21, Amber has worked hard to keep in touch virtually with local groups.
“I’ve supported webinar presentations and online consultations and have shared job opportunities and events via social media. I’ve also been involved with signposting community organisations’ support services such as food banks as the pandemic hit some local community groups hard.”
What do you love about the Library?
Amber’s job involves meeting lots of people, both staff and local residents. She has been impressed by the hidden skills and interests of the people she meets and has enjoyed chatting to people about her art.
“As an artist I love spending my lunchbreak sketching in the Piazza and chilling out in the Poet’s Circle.”
She was commissioned to design the Somers Town Big Local tote bag off the back of winning a Notting Hill Carnival T-shirt design competition.
Commission for Somers Town tote, illustration by Amber Perrier.
Amber's Notting Hill Carnival T-shirt competition-winning design
What’s your favourite object in the collection?
Amber’s first ‘show and tell’ featured items from our Ethiopian Collections and she became infatuated with the colours and gold in the manuscripts. A particular favourite is Nagara Māryām / History of Mary featured in this blog.
Nagara Māryām / History of Mary, Ethiopia, 18th century. Or 607, f 17r
“I also love looking at the old mags from Newham where I grew up in the East End.”
Any insider tips about the St Pancras area?
Amber normally spends a lot of time out and about in St Pancras meeting local groups. She recommends visiting The Story Garden, a temporary garden shaped by and for the local community and developed in response to feedback on our transformation plans for the Library.
“It’s very therapeutic and you can take the time out to enjoy the botanical atmosphere.”
Any book recommendations for our readers?
Amber recommends All on the Board written by two TFL underground employees. They started creating their famous quote boards anonymously as a side hustle to their day job as station support staff.
“I’ve been dipping in and out of it during lockdown and it’s been a great pick-me-up. It really lifts my spirits!”
25 February 2021
Behind the scenes at the British Library: John Lee, Publisher, and Maria Vassilopoulos, Publishing Sales and Marketing Manager
Our small publishing team of just five people publish approximately 50 books per year, surfacing unexpected treasures from our collections, including maps, manuscripts, great works of literature and rare books. Continuing our peek behind the scenes at the people behind the British Library, Jo from the digital engagement team catches up with two members of the publishing team about their roles, their book recommendations and the impact of the pandemic on the publishing industry.
Maria Vassilopoulos is our Publishing Sales and Marketing Manager. She is responsible for selling our titles to UK and international retailers and manages our publishing social media channels (see handles below).
As Publisher, John Lee oversees the team and manages our own books and our publishing partnerships.
“We publish a lot more than many cultural institutions. In addition to our exhibition catalogues, co-editions and facsimiles, we are surfacing forgotten stories from our collections. We’re not an academic publisher; we publish books for everyone.” John Lee
How has Covid-19 changed the way you work?
It is true that the publishing landscape has faced challenges over the past year but alongside the British Library Shop we have found our voice on our social media channels and started an Instagram account. We have had to think more innovatively about how to share the content of our books with our customers and retailers with less face-to-face opportunities available to us. Our Editors Abbie Day and Jonny Davidson and Publishing Apprentice Thomas Irvine have done a fantastic job keeping our schedules going and being innovative with our authors and contributors to bring our titles to a truly international audience.
“We’re an adaptable team and we just got on with it. We’ve pursued online retail opportunities and introduced more virtual ‘see inside’ functionality. Ebooks are also doing well. Plus, we’ve engaged a lot more with independent bookshops and run some online events, leading us to reach international audiences. At our recent Visions of the Vampire launch event we had attendees from as far afield as Paraguay.” Maria Vassilopoulos
The team have continued with their publishing activity even though there have been hurdles along the way. Access to collection items has been less straightforward but, thanks to our collections’ services team and studio photographer, the 2020 publishing programme was not enormously compromised. For example, during the summer of 2020 we were able to photograph a series of maps in the studio so that we could publish A History of the Second World War in 100 Maps in October, which has achieved international commercial success and been featured in two separate American library review lists of the top history books of the year.
“But I feel distanced from the collections and those chance encounters and discussions with curators. I’m also really missing our onsite readers and the simple inspiration I get seeing them queueing up every morning, each with the potential to do something wonderful with the collections.” John Lee
Both John and Maria speak about the energy of the Library and the people who use our collections. Maria uses the Library both as a researcher as well as being a member of staff. She misses talking about ideas with others.
How did you get into this field?
Maria started her career as a bookseller and worked for Waterstones for nearly a decade before taking a sales role at Abrams & Chronicle Books. She spotted the British Library job vacancy while managing the jobs section for The Bookseller trade magazine. She’s been with us since 2016. Alongside this she has been researching the history of the British Book Trade Industries for her PhD with UCL.
John went straight into publishing from college, working his way through the ranks and in a range of roles. He started in sales but quickly moved across to editorial roles. He has been managing publishing teams and programmes for some 25 years.
“Over the years I’ve worked in many different fields with overall focus on non-fiction subjects including history, art, cartography, transport and popular culture. My role at the Library has extended my range into classic fiction, exhibition books, heritage titles and even some children’s books.” John Lee
He also set up his own independent publishing lists specialising in cycling books and quirky history titles. He saw the British Library Publisher role advertised on LinkedIn and started with us in November 2018.
Give us a flavour of the books you publish
Our Publishing team actively publish from our vast collections to bring forgotten stories and original non-fiction to new audiences. We publish approximately 50 books per year, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and have several popular series. Every penny of revenue from our publications goes straight back into the Library to supports all sorts of programmes.
“Six or seven years ago we launched our Crime Classics list and now have over 100 titles in the series. Most branches of Waterstones have a table especially for these bestsellers.” Maria Vassilopoulos
Spurred on by the phenomenal success of the Crime Classics, the team went on to develop a series of books focussing on horror and paranormal fiction under the ‘Tales of the Weird’ banner and also regularly publish new titles in the British Library Science Fiction Classics series. Our editors dig into the collections to bring weird and wonderful books and short stories to light. Right at the start of the first lockdown we also launched our Women’s Writers fiction series, linked to the Library’s Unfinished Business exhibition.
Sometimes books come from unlikely sectors and areas.
“A team favourite is the The Philosophy of Beards, an eccentric Victorian book that argues a strong case for the universal wearing of a beard. Re-discovered in our collections, we republished it for the first time since 1850, accompanied by illustrations of impressive beards from history. We’ve gone on to commission several spin-off titles such as The Philosophy of… Gin, Wine, Coffee etc. Tattoos and Beer are next.” John Lee
John and Maria are keen to increase our digital presence so that more people can find out about our books. They want to diversify both our pool of authors and the readers of our books.
Any book recommendations for our readers?
Maria recommends Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell.
“I’ve read it over again and I admire the way he describes the way people lived and the comparisons between the two cities. Linked to my PhD, I love social history and reading diaries.” Maria Vassilopoulos, Publishing Sales and Marketing Manager
One of John’s favourite writers is American author and journalist Bill Buford. (Hear a conversation with Bill Buford and Ian McEwan on BL Sounds from 1991.)
“I love the way he immerses himself in different worlds, from a chef in Heat to a football hooligan in Among the Thugs. I’m looking forward to reading his new book, Dirt. I’m currently re-reading Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration which is about how to get the best out of people creatively and is based on the rise of the Pixar animation/film company.” John Lee
What’s your favourite object in the collection?
Using the Library as a PhD researcher, Maria has made good use of our newspapers collection. She also enjoyed working with the Virago Archive, exhibited as part of Unfinished Business, showing the challenges women have faced in the publishing industry.
John struggled to pick one item as a favourite. What he loves about his job is selecting a commercial subject for a book and simply mining the collection.
“My favourite item is the one we’re just about to find as part of research for a book. I love the unique potential we have here. I’m also very privileged to manage the Library’s facsimile programme with external publishers. I get to work alongside our curators to present some of the Library’s treasures and get to see these objects first-hand. In my second week at St Pancras I sat alongside Kathleen Doyle presenting the Harley Golden Gospels to a client. A truly breath-taking introduction to my new role.” John Lee
Knowledge Matters blog recent posts
- Library Lives: Liz Jolly, British Library Boston Spa and St Pancras
- Behind the scenes at the British Library: Amber Perrier, Community Engagement Officer
- Behind the scenes at the British Library: John Lee, Publisher, and Maria Vassilopoulos, Publishing Sales and Marketing Manager
- Open for change: stories, articles and events to get you started