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26 March 2019

When the personal gets political

What turns someone who keeps a diary into a diarist? Is it the circumstances they find themselves in? Their literary skill? Do they always, like Oscar Wilde’s Cecily, have one eye on future publication?

Diaries (Tony Benn Archive)
A selection of diaries from the Tony Benn Archive. Photo credit: British Library

Ruth Winstone, editor of the political diaries of both Tony Benn and Chris Mullin, speaking at an event at the British Library on 21 March (alongside Mullin, Melissa Benn and Peter Hennessey) suggests that there are two kinds of diarists: ideologues, who use this record of their lives to support a particular point, and observers, who aim to give an impression of something, viewing events with novelistic eyes, rather than push a particular agenda – ‘how it felt,’ agreed Chris Mullin, ‘what it was like. Not just who said what.’

In the Library’s Knowledge Centre, listening to Tony Benn’s recordings, and Chris Mullin’s live readings, one would be hard pressed to argue that one approach was ‘better’ than the other. It was suggested, however, that a diarist at the heart of events may miss the wider details and interesting juxtapositions that an observer, removed from the fray, may recognise.

A potential issue with any kind of memoir, Peter Hennessey argued, is that the act of reading someone’s diary, of ‘moving in’ with them, can so involve the reader with that person that they become an overwhelming influence on the reader’s perception of that era. Despite this caveat, there is little doubt that diaries can provide a fascinating, detailed, insightful (and in Tony Benn’s case meticulously precise) account of events. Even my own teenage diary offers some ‘historical’ details: what GCSEs and A-levels were like under Tony Blair's Labour government; which angsty songs wallowing 17 year olds in the north of England chose to listen to in 2003.

The British Library recently acquired Tony Benn’s archive, including thousands of hours of his audio diaries, which is sure to prove a uniquely valuable resource for biographers, researchers and historians. Now so many of us, and so many politicians, detail our lives and opinions on social media, do many people choose, or have time, to keep a diary? What effect might this have on future historians researching 2019?

Chris Mullin, Ruth Winstone, Melissa Benn and Peter Hennessey appeared at the British Library event The Diaries of Tony Benn and Chris Mullin on 21 March, as part of the Library’s Diaries Season. Find out what else we have coming up at www.bl.uk/whats-on

Ellen Morgan

11 March 2019

10 reasons to love libraries

Okay, so I know there are easily more than 10 reasons why we should all love libraries. But in the interest of writing a blog rather than an essay, or indeed a book, about the Library’s recent For the Love of Libraries event, I’m picking 10 top takeaways to remind us why libraries truly are the best places on earth.

On Sunday 10 March authors Philip Pullman, Salley Vickers and Jacqueline Wilson along with CEO of The Reading Agency, Sue Wilkinson, took to the British Library stage to discuss the importance of libraries, their experience of libraries as children into adulthood, and how these experiences have made their way onto the pages of their bestselling novels.

Of all the wonderful conversation, one point shocked me the most: over 40% of the UK’s population will never use a public library. ‘How is this possible?’ I thought. As someone who was brought up going to my local library with my parents or school on an almost weekly basis, having a desk with my name on it (well, pretty much) at Nottingham’s Hallward Library during my studies, and now being lucky enough to work at the British Library every day, this fact hit me with a great sadness.

So without further ado, here’s just a selection from the myriad reasons from the event on why everyone should use (and love) libraries:

1. Libraries are free

‘Go to a library, get a card, it’s FREE!’ – Jacqueline Wilson

Jacqueline Wilson
Jacqueline Wilson reads from 'The Illustrated Mum'

 

Need I say anymore? The journeys you can go on with a library card are endless and unforgettable and they cost you nothing. As well as being able to borrow books, audio books and DVDs at no cost, public libraries also provide free author events, book clubs, homework help sessions and computer classes. Here’s a pearl of wisdom which says it all from author Matt Haig:

 

Matt Haig tweet
Tweet from novelist Matt Haig

 

2. Libraries can come to you

‘We must have libraries where people are.’ – Philip Pullman

Mobile-library champion, Philip Pullman sung the praises of the traditional books-on-wheels offerings that frequented smaller neighbourhoods in times past, but which are now sadly dwindling due to lack of funding. Pullman spoke of how important it is to keep mobile libraries and pop-ups alive so that absolutely anyone, from parents with babies and young children to the elderly who can’t travel into towns and cities with ease, can still experience these ‘treasure houses for our culture’ (Liz Jolly, Chief Librarian, British Library). 

3. Libraries are open to everyone

In Salley Vickers’ The Librarian – a story inspired by Salley’s own experiences as a young reader, her children’s librarian in particular – the library of fictional town East Mole is a hubbub of activity for anyone and everyone. Its doors are open to all – from a child struggling with her 11+ to members of the WI. Similarly in Jacqueline Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum, dyslexia-sufferer Dolphin Westwood sits side-by-side with Oliver, a boy bright beyond his years, and they enjoy Where The Wild Things Are together in their school library. Libraries are there for everyone and have something for everyone.

In an age were diversity and difference is embraced more than ever, where better to find diversity that in a library?

4. In libraries, you’re the boss

‘It’s lovely when you can choose the books for yourself.’ – Philip Pullman

 

Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman at the event

Forget reading lists and being told what books you need to work your way through or study. In a library, you get to choose and that sense of choice and empowerment, especially for children, is something Pullman, Vickers and Wilson all urged: ‘A love of books comes from the reading, trying, loving and discarding!’ said Jacqueline. Plus you have the right to be nosey – did you know the most popular shelf in a library is the one housing the ‘just returned’ books? ‘A treasure chest of serendipity’ (Pullman) waiting to be explored. And there’s no right or wrong way to do it.

5. There’s more to libraries than books alone

As well as the aforementioned services offered by local and national libraries, the event’s panel were huge advocates of the power of storytelling and audiobooks. You don’t need to be an avid reader to fall in love with reading – go along to a story time session at your library or borrow an audiobook. The power and joy of having a story read to you is like no other – and the excitement it drums up doesn’t fizzle out when you leave the realms of childhood. I have to say that this event reminded me that there’s really nothing like hearing an author read from the pages of their own book.

6. We wouldn’t have some of our favourite authors without libraries

‘Among the many gifts I’ve gained from libraries is the writing of The Librarian.’ – Salley Vickers

Salley Vickers
Salley Vickers, who came up with the idea for this event, shared excerpts from ‘The Librarian’

 

It’s likely that Pullman, Vickers and Wilson wouldn’t be the writers they are today without the libraries they went to growing up, studying in and used as a springboard from which to embark on their careers as (now bestselling) authors. Each of the events’ authors recalled in great detail their earliest memories of libraries – the people they met within them and the books that libraries led them to.

7. In fact, we wouldn’t have some of our favourite books and characters without libraries

Pullman, Vickers and Wilson each read passages from their books set in libraries but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Where would Matilda, Madam Pince and Rupert Giles (you’re welcome, Buffy fans) be without libraries? Think of all the lifelong friends you’ve met in a library between the pages of your now favourite books. Both Pullman and Vickers told us of their respective but equally vivid first meetings with the Moomins while Wilson remembered the blossoming of her friendships with Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf at Kingston-Upon-Thames’s local library.

8. Libraries are good for the mind and soul

Matt Haig (our friend from reason number one) talks of the importance of libraries for the mind, body and soul in Notes on a Nervous Planet and ex-therapist Salley Vickers spoke of points in a similar vein. Libraries are a space to switch off from the instant, fast-paced, demanding strains of 21st-century life. Vickers highlighted the value of libraries and the role they play in helping and alleviating mental health issues. In a moving moment, Salley told us ‘My life was saved by The Owl Service’ when she was (unknowingly) suffering from a breakdown during her intense studies as a young adult

9. Libraries are a treat for the senses

‘I enjoyed the silence, the smell, the light…I would lose myself and it was absolute bliss.’ – Jacqueline Wilson.

Hands up who loves the smell of books? Me too. New ones. Old ones. I love them all. As well as the visual feast of rows upon rows of books of all shapes and sizes that greets one’s eyes when entering a library, as Jacqueline so vividly recalled, the whole visceral experience of the library for each of the senses is one not easily forgotten. It was this, along with the books Jacqueline encountered as a child, that affirmed to her that the ‘library is a place of refuge and a place of inspiration’.

10. Don’t just take our word for it

Not that more reasons are needed, but here’s what you’ve shared with us on social media about your love of libraries.

I shall leave you with these, and with some final and always-eloquent words from Jacqueline Wilson: ‘Up the libraries!’ (Cue raucous cheer from audience/from you reading this at home/at work/in a library).

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For the Love of Libraries was brought to the British Library in partnership with The Reading Agency. Take a look at our What’s On pages to see this season’s events.

Blog by Rachael, member of the British Library’s Content Team and a lifelong Jacqueline Wilson fan (in case that second bit wasn't obvious already). 

22 February 2019

Digitising the Private Case

Covent-Garden Ladies title-page 1788 CROPPED

The British Library holds something in the order of 160 million collection items. Among these are millions of old and rare items that comprise texts, illustrations, maps, music scores and other content on paper or parchment. Whether printed, handwritten, drawn or painted, they need to be protected from natural decay, accidental damage or deliberate mutilation.

Many are unique: the manuscripts obviously so, but also many printed editions that may be the last survivors of their print run or carry important evidence of past ownership and use (marginal annotations, bookplates, personalised bindings, and so on). As curators, we face a dilemma. On the one hand, we want to manage access in order to help preserve these items for further generations. On the other, we have a responsibility to make them available to increasing numbers of researchers, writers, artists and designers now.

Covent-Garden Ladies illustration 1793Above: illustration from Harris's List of Covent-Garden Ladies, 1793. Top: title page of Harris's list of Covent-Garden Ladies, 1788.

Part of the answer is digitisation, where we create full, high quality digital copies of these items and make them available via a computer network. It’s not that simple though: the items need to be selected, repairs may be necessary, copyright permissions obtained, searchable text files created, catalogue records enhanced, and files ingested into a digital store, to name just a few of the steps in the process. All this is a major undertaking that requires significant financial commitment. Even where the systems and resources are in place, the sheer volume of the material that we would all like to see digitised is well beyond the capacity of even the largest libraries.

Curators have wanted to digitise the Private Case collection of erotica for many years. Its content (just over 2,500 volumes printed 1634 to 1988, predominantly English and French novels) is of significant interest to both historical bibliographers and those researching past attitudes to sex and sexuality. Broadly speaking, four options are available:

  1. Seek a slice of the limited amount of funding and resources within the British Library to digitise the volumes ourselves;
  2. Seek philanthropic funding for a project run within the curatorial team;
  3. Partner with an academic institution that needs the material digitised as part of a funded research project;
  4. Work in partnership with a commercial organisation that will take on most of the costs, imaging and all of the risk in return for the ability to commercialise the content for an agreed period.

In all four scenarios, the digital images are ingested into our digital store as soon as practicable, and made available item-by-item via our online catalogues.

An advantage of options 3 and 4 is that the partner will usually build a web-based platform where digitised content can be searched, viewed and interpreted side-by-side with material they have secured from other repositories around the world. In the case of commercial partners, this platform will usually be behind a paywall – although free access will always be available from within any of the British Library’s Reading Rooms in London and Yorkshire. It could also be argued that the global reach of companies such as ProQuest, Gale, Adam Matthew and Google helps us tell many more researchers about our digitised resources, placing them into a broader context and offer opportunities for new research methods such as text mining.

Cabinet-of-venus-unlockedTitle page of The Cabinet of Venus Unlocked, 1657.

We considered all four options for the Private Case. It would be just one of many projects competing for limited internal funds under Option 1. With something over 4.5 million pre-1901 British and European printed books and periodicals, we have to take difficult decisions about what we prioritise: other categories of material would always need to come first.

We were, and still are, already involved in a digitisation project run on money raised from the general public (King’s Topographical Collection), and we felt that this needed to be completed before we attempt another appeal (Option 2). No firm proposals had been received from academics that would result in the digitisation of the entire Private Case (Option 3).

We were therefore delighted when commercial publishers began to contact the British Library to ask about the possibility of digitising the Private Case (Option 4). The contract was the subject of a competitive tender, and the winning company was required to clear copyright permissions (not an easy task with so many covertly-published titles from the late 19th- and early 20th centuries) and provide data to improve our existing catalogue records.

My-Secret-Life-1880-Amsterdam-vol2-contentsContents page of volume 2 of My Secret Life by 'Walter', 1880 edition published in Amsterdam.

The Private Case is now available in Part 3 of Archives of Gender and Sexuality published by Gale. Here they can be consulted alongside similar material digitised from collections elsewhere. Although this is a subscription resource, it is available in many research libraries around the world, and can be accessed for free through any British Library Reading Room. At the end of seven years, the digitised versions will also be accessible to everyone from accompanying records in the British Library’s online catalogue, for free.

Returning to the original point about how we want to protect these materials from natural decay, accidental damage or deliberate mutilation, we can now point researchers to good quality digital surrogates. Managed carefully, this will mean that the originals are handled less often and should survive in a better state for future generations to investigate and enjoy.

Adrian Edwards

Head, Printed Heritage Collections