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

10 March 2021

Towards an action plan on anti-racism

British-library-aerial-shot 2-smaller
In July 2020, the British Library committed to create and implement an approved anti-racism action plan, sponsored by our Chief Librarian, Liz Jolly.

The purpose of this blog is to update you: our users, readers, visitors, partners and online audiences, on how we are putting this commitment into practice.

Reflecting on the events of the summer of 2020, our Chief Executive, Roly Keating, said: “There have been incremental changes over the years, but this is a wake-up call for the Library’s leadership that it’s not enough. Our duty at this moment is to show humility, to listen, to learn and then to enact change”.

As co-chairs of the Anti-Racism Project – the group set up to produce the action plan – we are leading a piece of practical project work which we have taken care to ensure all colleagues across our two sites (in St Pancras, London and Boston Spa, West Yorkshire) have an ongoing opportunity to take part in. 

Structure of the Anti-Racism Project – involving our people

The term “anti-racism” is becoming more and more prevalent in conversations around tackling prejudice and inequality. We acknowledge that it can mean different things to different people, and we're still working out what exactly anti-racism means for the British Library, as we work towards producing an action plan.

But what we do know is that this work must improve the experience of all those who work at, use and enjoy the British Library. From the beginning we knew that to really achieve this, the anti-racism project had to take a “grassroots” approach, including the broadest possible range of experience and perspectives from across the whole of our diverse workforce.

Currently, there are approximately 90 colleagues involved, representing the sheer diversity of a national library. Colleagues in our People Team trained in HR practices, curators looking after our collections, conservators, Board Members, representatives from our BAME Staff Network and those in visitor-facing roles who engage with our users and audiences every day: these are just some of the perspectives informing the work we are doing to understand where we are and produce recommendations for positive and meaningful change for everyone.

It has taken us some months to structure this valuable cohort of enthusiasm and expertise into a properly governed structure. Working to established project management principles, the project contains a number of working subgroups, which will explore areas such as people and HR policies, collections and content, audiences, cataloguing, and values - all driven by evidence-based research steered by data and insight.  

As co-chairs, it’s our job to ensure that the project is a safe space for everyone involved - a forum which values all perspectives and experience equally. This ethos is important to us because it allows colleagues from different areas and levels of seniority to come together with openness and honesty, sparking new connections in a way that doesn’t always happen in the regular day to day work of the Library - especially during this time of working from home.

What’s next – learning our way towards change

Now that the project structure is in place, the real work is beginning. Our subgroups have begun an active phase of research and analysis towards understanding our current performance on a whole range of areas through the lens of anti-racism. These include:

  • How well we’re engaging with Black audiences through our cultural programme
  • The stories we choose to amplify through our collections and digital channels
  • Ethnic diversity in management roles and in our Senior Leadership Team 
  • Improving the experience of our physical spaces through thoughtful and balanced interpretations of the Library’s history based on Historic England’s principle of “retain and explain”
  • Looking at metadata attached to collection material acquired or catalogued during a time of colonialism and empire

The scope of what we’ll be looking at is by no means limited to the aspects above. Rather, it will be extremely wide-ranging, in line with our duties as a national and legal deposit library, as well our Living Knowledge: For Everyone strategy. It will involve conversations with different colleagues and teams across our workforce as well as with our peer organisations and, eventually, you, our audiences, to learn from others and understand how we can do better.

Following this research phase, the anti-racism project will come together and develop a set of recommendations for improvement. Once approved, these recommendations will become the basis of the British Library’s Anti-Racism Action Plan, which we look forward to sharing with you.

Our senior management team have marked out a period of three years to implement the Action Plan and of course, those years will require us to outgrow the project-style structure we’re currently working in. Everyone who works at and enjoys the Library will have a role to play in helping us on our journey towards positive change on anti-racism, and ultimately, towards becoming a national library that is truly, and consciously, for everyone.

Hugh Brown and T. Rajukumar

Co-Chairs of the Anti-Racism Project at the British Library

 

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, Publishing Sales and Marketing Manager

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).

 

John Lee, Publisher

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

The Lost Gallows - BL Crime Classics

 

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

IMG-20190718-WA0001

 

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

Find out more about the publishing team

Browse our book shop

Follow British Library Publishing on Twitter

Follow British Library Publishing on Instagram

11 February 2021

Unfinished Business in libraries across the UK

For the past three years the British Library and public libraries in the Living Knowledge Network – a UK-wide partnership of national and public libraries – have collaborated on exhibitions. This year we were thrilled to be working on Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, with 26 pop-up exhibitions taking place in physical library buildings.

Over the challenges of the last few months, libraries across the UK have demonstrated they are still open and active, despite the lockdown measures restricting their services and physical spaces. Many libraries have continued to offer book lending services via click and collect, have supported the Covid response of their local council and continued to programme online events and activities. While it was initially daunting to think about how libraries could continue the UK-wide exhibition, they have shown incredible innovation and versatility in not only keeping it alive, but injecting new vitality into it.

It has been inspiring to see how libraries have continued to celebrate and explore the themes of the Unfinished Business exhibition in the digital sphere, which has been creatively brought to life in 26 libraries across the UK, from Exeter to Aberdeen, Norfolk to Sheffield. Public libraries have programmed a wide range of events, including in-conversation discussions with local historians and activists, creative workshops, themed book groups and author talks. Through their events, libraries have surfaced the lives and achievements of many unsung local pioneers who have played a huge role in advancing the fight for women’s rights.

Particular highlights have included Suffolk libraries’ programme of talks exploring broad themes of the exhibition. Still to come: Exeter Library will be hosting the acclaimed poet Tolu Agbelusi as writer-in-residence during the months of February and March, who will be running a series of exciting interactive events, all with a focus of exploring the stories of Exeter’s women. Workshops have also proved popular for younger audiences across the Network, including a Zine Workshop led by Cherry Styles from Salford Zine Library hosted by library staff from Kirklees.

Libraries have also responded by creating virtual exhibitions, including Norfolk Library’s fascinating exploration of women who were at the forefront of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s and 80s, showing how they connected to national and international feminist campaigns. The exhibition also unveils the stories behind Rosie’s Plaques, the handmade unofficial blue plaques celebrating local historic women who appeared on the streets of Norwich in 2019, and includes a Norfolk Women of History hall of fame, shining a light on the little-known, but incredibly important narratives behind the fight for equality of opportunity.

Dedicated to the profane and opinionated women plaque2

A digital showcase has also been created by Warwickshire Libraries illuminating the stories of the area’s suffragette movement, reflecting on the experiences of Warwickshire women in WWII through the Land Army and highlighting the life stories of novelist George Eliot and botanist, Dorothy Adlington Cadbury. Additionally, Leeds Libraries have created a virtual tour of items from their special collections, which help illustrate the accomplishments of inspirational local women from the past and present via the themes of mind, body and voice.

To complement the work of libraries, events from the British Library have also been live streamed throughout the period while libraries have been unable to fully open, bringing live events featuring the likes of Dolly Parton and Gloria Steinem to people’s homes via a freely accessible archive.

Last week the Network hit a milestone, with the first co-produced Unfinished Business event going live. ‘On this Day She: Putting Women Back into History One Day at a Time’ was a collaboration by the British Library, Warwickshire County Council and the West Midlands Readers' Network. The recording is now available to watch again. Join authors Jo Bell, Tania Hershman, Ailsa Holland and Imogen Church as they discuss the forgotten women of history and their place in the national story for the fight for equality.

Katherine Blamire

Project Officer, Living Knowledge Network