Living Knowledge blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

Introduction

Experts and directors at the British Library blog about strategy, key projects and future plans Read more

16 September 2022

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the British Library

We are deeply saddened by the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Since her passing, we have commemorated her life on social media – where many of you have shared your own touching reflections, anecdotes, and personal tributes.

A black and white portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

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The British Library came into being in 1973, when Her Majesty The Queen was already twenty years into her long reign. She played a key role at one of the great milestones of our life as an institution, when she officially opened the Library’s new building at St Pancras in 1998.

The Queen, pictured smiling, at the official opening of the British Library.

On that occasion, Her Majesty described the opening of the building – designed by Sir Colin St John Wilson, together with partner MJ Long, in a project that lasted more than three decades - as “an engagement which has, I think it is fair to say, been in my pending tray rather longer than most.”

HM The Queen and HRH Prince Philip pictured officially opening the British Library.

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Nevertheless, she took the opportunity to congratulate the “architects, builders, engineers, designers, technicians, and management, to whom this labour of love must have seemed at times to be endless” and hailed the result as: “this remarkable building… to my mind it is truly worthy of our country’s contribution to literature and scholarship, to science and technology.”

Her Majesty had a direct family connection to several of the Library’s founding collections, including the Royal Manuscripts collection - transferred to the British Museum by George II in 1757 - and the collection of George III (the ‘King’s Library’), which was bequeathed to the nation by his son, George IV. The Royal Music Library, with its outstanding collection of Handel manuscripts, which had been on loan to the British Museum since 1911, was donated by Her Majesty herself in 1957.

A tall glass tower, housing thousands of books, manuscripts and more.

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In her opening speech, she observed: “it is reassuring to find that – digital revolution notwithstanding – the books collected by King George III are still at the very heart of our national library - and given such a prominent place in the glass tower behind me.”

In 2011, Her Majesty, accompanied by HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, visited the Library to open our exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.

HM The Queen, pictured with HRH Prince Philip, opens the Royal Manuscripts exhibition

This was one of several visits over the years, including the opening of our exhibition on the history of British newspapers in 2006. Her Majesty also had a formal role, enshrined in the British Library Act, of appointing one member of the Library’s Board.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will be warmly remembered at the Library, especially by everyone who met her during her visits here, or on other official occasions.

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The Queen's 1940 broadcast in our Sound Archive

Her Majesty the Queen’s speeches and broadcasts have been a source of comfort and inspiration for many:

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Throughout her life she offered words of wisdom and comfort to the nation. This edited extract from a radio broadcast in our Sound Archive dates from 1940, during World War II. Princess Elizabeth, then aged 14, speaks to the children of Britain, in particular those who had been evacuated and were separated from their parents, as she often was herself during this time.

'A broadcast message to children’, recorded 13 October 1940. Shelfmark 1CD0197283/2CD0053501

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We will never forget her compelling words, as well as her support and belief in our mission at what was a crucial moment in our history as the UK national library.

08 July 2022

Three of our most fascinating collection items from around the world

The items in our collection and the expertise of our curators span the globe. This month, as many people’s minds turn to travel, we thought we’d shine a spotlight on some intriguing items suggested by our curators that originate from outside the UK.

Ethiopian amulets

Examples of amulet scrolla (BL Or.13228, above; BL Or.15594, below)

BL Or.15594

The peoples of Ethiopia, and elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, have worn these incredible amulet scrolls for thousands of years.

They are part of a rich magical literature of incantation, a striking and distinctive form of Ethiopian Christian material, meant to bring health, protect babies and ward off the evil eye.

Amulet scrolls, one with a protective cylindrical case. Ethiopia, 18th century (BL Or.12859)

BL Or.12859

Amulets are written on leather or metal, and kept protected either in leather cases, or as shown above, silver cases. Pictured is an amulet and ornate case from 18th century Ethiopia, which we hold in our Asian and African Collection. Hung up in the home or worn around the neck, this scroll contains prayers for undoing spells, with talismanic drawings giving effect to its powers: curing sickness, exorcising demons, and protecting those on long journeys.

Here's a look inside. This talisman depicts St. Michael chastising a demon.

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BL Or.12895

The magical properties of these drawings lie in the hidden symbolism. Some we know, but others remain cryptic – this talisman of an eight-pointed star with a human face, for example, has no traceable roots.

Image of an eight-pointed star (BL Or.15594, detail)

BL Or.15594

Read more about Ethiopian amulets and incantations here.

The Ark of Unique Cultures: The Hutsuls

Copies of The Ark of Unique Cultures: The Hutsuls

Copies of The Ark of Unique Cultures: The Hutsuls (Tallinn, Ukrainian Cultural Centre, 2014). (Reproduced by kind permission of the Ukrainian Cultural Centre).

In Tallinn, Estonia, resides the Ukrainian-born Benedictine friar Anatoli Ljutjuk. In 2014, he created an unusual handmade book – a record and celebration of the Hutsuls, an ethnic group originating from the Carpathian Mountains.

We received one copy, while the remaining 34 were donated to other major libraries around the world. Inside are stored elements of Hutsul culture: poetry in the unique Hutsul dialect, pre-Second World War photographs of Hutsul families and dress, and even pressings of flora from the Carpathian Mountains.

Bride and groom page from book

Pages from the book featuring postcards, photographs and Mariya Korpanyuk’s poems.

The strings you see falling from the book tie postcards, designed by Anatoli, to its pages. These postcards were distributed in Hutsul villages, then sent back to Anatoli and the Ukrainian Cultural Centre complete with aspects of Hutsul life that the villagers wished to share.

For its creator, The Ark of Unique Cultures is a beautiful way of honouring an ethnic group whose traditions are in danger of being overwhelmed by the larger groups around it. Read more about the book here, and access a digitised copy available via the National Library of Estonia here.

1920s photographs of the Tanganyika Government Printer

This fantastic collection of photographs not only enhances our visual materials surrounding the former African state of Tanganyika, but also our documentation of printing technology in the early 20th century.

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View of the Composing Room, where typesetting took place. Photo 1403(3)

Tanganyika, which merged with Zanzibar in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania, established its Government Printer in Dar es Salaam following the First World War. This collection of 10 photographs shows office spaces, printing rooms and employees during the 1920s. The descendent of a former civil servant working at the press donated the images to the Library, though the photographer’s identity remains unknown.

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Employee at Typesetting Machine. Photo 1403(4).

Under British colonial rule, the Government Printer published The Tanganyika Territory Gazette for over 40 years. Tanganyika became a sovereign nation in 1961, with the final edition of the paper being published in 1964 upon the formation of Tanzania. A list of the Government Printer’s publications from the 1940s onwards is available on Open Access in the Social Science Reading Room (OPL 967.8).

Independent printing presses played an important role in fuelling Tanganyika’s independence movement. Erica Fiah’s Swahili periodical Kwetu was one of these, circumventing restrictions imposed upon independent newspaper printing by the British administration.  

Read more about these photographs.

Of course it is impossible to select just three, so here's a few more international items that have are worth learning about (suggested by our curators):

Max Burt, Content Co-ordinator in the Digital Engagement Team

07 July 2022

Launching the Green Libraries Manifesto

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From climate crisis focused community workshops to imaginative and practical carbon saving initiatives, libraries are already engaged with tackling climate emergency and doing their bit in facilitating positive climate outcomes. Today at the CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) annual conference, we saw the next stage in stepping up the shared effort of libraries to do more for our planet and for all of us, by launching the Green Libraries Manifesto.

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At the launch of the Green Libraries Manifesto (left to right): Sarah Mears MBE, Programmes Manager, Libraries Connected; Maja Maricevic, British Library; Rabeea Arif, Projects and Programmes Manager, CILIP; Claire Buckley, Environment Sustainability Consultant, Julie's Bicycle; Sue Williamson MBE, Director, Libraries, Arts Council England.

By signing the Manifesto, libraries will commit to a set of common principles, which will enable us to have much greater impact by working together than we can on our own. As well as committing to building new partnerships, the principles emphasise the need for all libraries to put sustainability at the heart of their work and planning, to embrace innovation that will help them to change their current practices, and to grow and share knowledge. The Manifesto also emphasises the role of libraries in supporting young people, especially in supporting their role in providing environmental leadership in their schools, communities and workplaces.

The Manifesto is an initiative of the Green Libraries Partnership, started earlier this year by CILIP, Libraries Connected, Julie’s Bicycle and the British Library. The Partnership is also running a small Green Libraries Fund to support small-scale exploratory programmes within public libraries in England, and is conducting a survey that would broaden our understanding of the work already under way in the sector. 

Our own work on the Partnership has been inspired by activity across the Living Knowledge Network, including a workshop run with our Network partners to explore views and activity related to climate. From the festival of written word focusing on climate in Wakefield to the strategic and collaborative approach taken by Scottish libraries in the run up to the COP26, this workshop seeded the idea that we can do even more by sharing our ideas and resources. And it made us realise that our collective voice in supporting climate action will be stronger if we work together.

The Green Libraries Manifesto will provide a flexible cross-sector platform to inspire and help libraries to do more, in ways that are appropriate to their own means and local area. As the founding member and a signatory of the Manifesto, we are committed to working across the sector, including continuing to champion climate-related work within the Living Knowledge Network. We are also committed to reducing our own carbon emissions, empowering our staff to take action through our Staff Sustainability Group, and to involve all our users in researching, debating and contributing to positive climate action.

Maja Maricevic

Head of Higher Education and Science