Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

22 January 2013

Behind the scenes in social sciences

What do social science curators at the British Library get up to? This post looks across the work of the scoial science department to show the range of activities undertaken by our team.

Every month my colleague @BLRobertDavies and I compile a list of recent activity by members of our department. We circulate this to our colleagues at the British Library as a way of keeping our colleagues in touch with the work that we do. It struck me this month that a post about range of activities undertaken here might provide some insight about what it is like to work within the area of social sciences in an institution which isn’t a university, think-tank, charity or research unit (but has strong links with all of these). I hope that this post might offer a view into the varied life of a social science curator and may even be fuel for thought for those hoping to pursue a social science career.

The Social Sciences department at the British Library includes curators from a range of backgrounds across Information Management, teaching and research (and a combination of all of these). There are subject and area-specific curators who work with the British Library’s collections to both manage these collections and improve access to the collections by those who need to use them. For example, last month we launched our Social Welfare Portal which has been developed by our team members who manage our Social Policy and Official Publications materials. It is a great example of how material is curated by Library staff in such a way as to be useful and accessible to audiences both within and outside of academia. Another way material is curated online is through the development of special website collections, for example, one colleague has recently developed a special collection of websites on Slavery in the Caribbean.

SMALL Caribbean Views
Exterior of an Antigua Boiling House, William Clark 1823 (BL Shelfmark: 1796.c.9). From the Library’s ‘Caribbean Views’ gallery

The British Library is unusual in that under the legal deposit act, we receive copies of all materials published in the UK. Yet this doesn’t mean that we don’t still select and acquire materials. For example, materials are selected on a monthly basis to comprise the reference collections which are held on the open shelves in our reading rooms, while publications published overseas and/or which fall outside the legal deposit act, are selected and acquired by curators.

As the home of our national collections, we want to ensure that the collections are well-used and understood by members of the public. To ensure that the collections are accessible our team members offer in-house workshops and seminars with their audiences, develop public events and often contribute to postgraduate study through seminars about our resources and research methodologies. One of our ESRC placement colleagues developed case studies about our collections which are aimed at social science postgraduates to show the range of our collections and how they can be used to enhance research. These are held on the ESRC website.

For school children, the Learning Team develops materials, workshops and teaching aides alongside the curatorial experts. For example, the Sounds Familiar resource and Food Stories were developed with our curators. We also work with colleagues across the Library to develop our major exhibitions. In fact, the May exhibition on Propaganda has been developed by one of our team members.

Much of what we do requires a very good working knowledge of what academic and other researchers need in order to undertake their research. Department members devote time to developing links and relationships with our users. Sometimes this is done through visits and through developing joint events for knowledge exchange (big events during December covered diverse subjects such as ‘Queer’ Families, Impact in Social Sciences, and Welfare Research), sometimes through collaborative research and collection enhancement activity (for example, the Sisterhood and After project) and sometimes through working with membership organisations, participation on external boards and committees and national and international projects. Curators on our team publish books, scholarly articles and blogs and contribute to strategic activity across the higher education sector and beyond.


Sisters! Question Every Aspect of Our Lives, 1975 © See Red Women's Workshop*

It is very stimulating to be able to work alongside such an erudite bunch of people, and while the knowledge held by colleagues can sometimes be daunting it also means that there is never a dull moment at the British Library!

*Via The Women’s Library, London and part of their 2009 exhibition Ms Understood: Women’s Liberation and 1970s Britain


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