Living Knowledge blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library


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

24 March 2017

Living Knowledge Network skills sharing day


The Living Knowledge Network’s first skills sharing day took place late last year. Librarians from around the UK came to the Norrish Library in Portsmouth to talk together, share ideas and learn collectively. Following a recent blog post on the event on the Libraries Taskforce blog, I received requests for more detailed information on the aims and outputs of the day, which I have summarised below.

Aims of the day

  • Share experience and best practice around working with children under 12 and hard to reach families
  • Network with partner libraries and Learning colleagues
  • Look at working together on joint learning opportunities

Spotlight Sessions

Nick Sharratt, Author/Illustrator

Experience working with under 12’s in museums/libraries/schools:

  • Short Stories are best for sharing as more interactive
  • Low-tech sometimes most effective
  • Books with lots of themes (and humour) good for interactivity and discussion
  • Flap books ideal for children with differing language skills (used by Nick Sharratt when working with Syrian refugee children)
  • Activities involving humour are good for engaging and getting the feel of groups
  • Content of books can generate activities, eg. Pants or Socks – designing sock animals or objects (Stegosockus or a Sock air balloon)
  • Props and actions provide interesting focal points and help engage children in the session (Never use a Knife and Fork – Balance bagels on head and do actions)
  • Inclusive draw-alongs on large rolls of paper ideal for big group activities

Cerys Griffiths, Executive Producer, BBC Learning

BBC Learning experience working with children in public libraries and lessons learnt:

  • Amazing Authors programme primarily focusing on C2,D,E audiences
  • Research shows that it is not so much brand that makes a difference, but activities that are accessible and open for everybody
  • Celebrities get headlines, but Social Media Influencers (e.g. blogger/vlogger e.g. charlieissocoollike) will actually influence what people do
  • Local Libraries key players in making the social media campaign successful for #LovetoRead
  • Post #LovetoRead weekend, statistics indicated initial 30% increase in borrowing from local libraries

Group Discussion

Strategies to attract hard to reach families into libraries through partnerships:

  • Looking to partner with Children’s Centres, Schools, and Community fun days/Fresher’s fairs
  • Changing perceptions
  • Taking activities outside the libraries – e.g. work with housing associations
  • Building up trust with long-term projects
  • Summer Reading Challenge generates excitement
  • Young ambassadors
  • Tours and behind the scenes features
  • Work with sports clubs to explore sport through libraries
  • Attract parents and dispel Threshold Anxiety by using the Library space for other activities – e.g. School plays and sleep overs
  • Tackle library and cultural institution representation in pop culture
  • Dispel myths about young people’s interests
  • Major challenge to attract parents and carers as opposed to children
  • Working with multi-agency groups to increase library reach with targeted families (C2,D,E) that libraries might not otherwise have data on
  • Be clear about target audience and target outcomes
  • Wider partnerships needed to reach wider services and marketing services
  • Libraries do not always have to be content providers, but also facilitators
  • Advocators needed in local communities

Key outcomes of the day

  • Partnerships with other local community and cultural organisations extremely important as they improve the reach of Libraries in who they can engage, and expands the scope of activities that can be put on
  • Evaluation becoming increasingly important in order to stand up to scrutiny from governing bodies
  • Important to re-evaluate activities and learning programmes periodically in order to avoid becoming outdated
  • Providing clear outcomes and a clear progression of activities important for sustained interest
  • Targeting and engaging adults (parents and carers) is just as important as engaging children under 12 in C2, D, E audiences as they are in control of children’s schedules

What participants thought

‘A really great informative day - a real treat to share and receive ideas’

‘It was great. Particularly the mix of people’

‘Locally we have established partners who we will work with in 2017 and provided colleagues with contacts out of area, which will certainly bear fruit in terms of ongoing skill sharing and new projects. On an immediate level, it was an opportunity to listen to some high level and very entertaining speakers.’


Ella Snell

Living Knowledge Network Manager


[Photo credit: Strong Island Co]

28 February 2017

A Journey to Essex

HHPP view over Thurrock

Recently, the personal and professional collided for me when Library colleagues and I were invited to visit High House Production Park to meet counterparts from Creative and Cultural Skills and the Royal Opera House.  HHPP itself is based in Thurrock, coincidently the borough in South East Essex where I grew up.

High House Production Park (HHPP) opened in 2010, on a site in Purfleet dating back to the 16th century. This first phase of development saw the opening of the Royal Opera House's Bob and Tamar Manoukian Set Production workshop. This was followed three years later by the Creative & Cultural Skills' Backstage Centre - a world class production, rehearsal and training venue for performance, broadcast and live events- and new creative workspaces from Acme Studios.

ROH at HHPP smallROH’s Bob and Tamar Manoukian Costume Centre rounded out the site in 2015, holding not just costumes and accessories from Royal Opera House productions, but also other artifacts such as musical instruments and furniture too. The Centre also delivers a BA (Hons.) degree course in Costume Construction, in partnership with South Essex College and University of the Arts London. In addition, the new National College for Creative and Cultural Industries opened its doors at HHPP in September 2016. providing specialist training in technical and production skills.  

HHPP was born through collaboration between the Royal Opera House, Creative and Cultural Skills, Arts Council England. Its vision is for “an international centre of excellence for creative industries in Thurrock that will inspire a new generation.”

The British Library’s mission is to make our intellectual heritage accessible to everyone, for research, inspiration and enjoyment. We want everyone to feel a connection with their national library, wherever in the UK they are based and whatever their background.

Essex and it seems to me South East Essex in particular is often a place that it has been unfairly derided, whether the Essex girl jokes of the 1990s or more recent stereotypes from popular culture. And yet it is a place of profound beauty and creativity, close to London but wth its own particular identity.  As Metal, organisers of last year’s inaugural Estruary Festival said so compellingly:

“The Thames Estuary is an ‘edgeland’. It is a place of transition – one of arrivals and departures – a gateway that connects the UK to the rest of the world. It has been the front line for the defence of the realm as well as the first port of welcome for migrants and visitors from around the world. Industrial heartland and logistics sit alongside wild habitats, ancient monuments and concrete commuter towns.” Estuary Festival, 2016

This sense of being somehow “other”, a place bounded by London and the sea has been documented brilliantly by Rachel Lichenstein and Iain Sinclair as well as through countless pieces of literature. Purfleet is famous for being the location of Carfax House in Bram Stocker’s Dracula, perhaps the marshy and industrial landscape itself embodying for Stoker a sense of the wonder and “otherness” of the literary sublime.  Dickens of course evokes the mystery from the Kentish side when Pip first meets Magwitch in those gloomy marshes and Joseph Conrad lived in Stanford-Le-Hope, often forgotten as the place where the speaker listens to Marlowe begin his narrative in Heart of Darkness:

“The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint… A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to the sea in vanishing flatness.”

Even the A13 itself, Thurrock’s main artery, which stretches between London and the Essex coast has inspired artists, including Billy Bragg and Jah Wobble.  I also would urge anyone interested in the soundscape of Essex to investigate The London Sound Survey’s wonderful Estuary Map

With all this in mind, I had a huge range of emotions on this return visit to Thurrock. One of the unexpected highlights from the day was being introduced to students not just as a visitor from the British Library, but as someone from Thurrock itself, reflecting I hope the importance of having a workforce that is representative and diverse. 

And of all the inspirational things I saw that day (and there were many), what made me stop in my tracks and momentarily lose my colleagues was the ROH Thurrock logo itself, which summed up for me what HHPP is doing. It isn’t just that the cultural organisations involved are bringing cultural skills and production to this bit of Essex or the important community engagement around this.  Nor is it just that HHPP now acts as a hub for organisations national wide and puts Thurrock firmly on the map as a cultural venue.  It’s the fact that Thurrock itself now represents a core part of ROH’s strategy and through all the partners on the site is undeniably and deservedly an integral part of the UK’s cultural contribution and skills development.  Now that is something to celebrate. 

Liz White

Head of Strategy Development


Find out more about the British Library’s mission at  

British Library jobs and work experience placements can be found on our website:


09 January 2017

John Berger (1926-2017): The Company of the Past


In a New Statesman interview in June 2015, John Berger—then aged 88—talked about the importance of the past to his writing and thinking: ‘You see, I think that the dead are with us…they are a presence. What you think you’re looking at on that long road to the past is actually beside you where you stand.’

Having celebrated his 90th birthday late last year, on 2 January 2017 John Berger passed away.  Much has been written in celebration of this most singular writer, critic, artist, story-teller…and much of it speaks to not only the extraordinary acuity of his thinking, but to the (equally significant) extraordinary warmth of the connections that he sparked with inquiring minds of all ages and from all countries. As his biographer, and former British Library researcher and cataloguer, Tom Overton put it so brilliantly on the Today programme, ‘Berger had this wonderful way of winking’.

I know exactly what Tom means. In 2009, I had the particular privilege of travelling to the hamlet of Quincy in the Haute-Savoie where John and his wife Beverly (who died in 2013) lived. John had offered to donate his archive to the British Library: a typical act of generosity and solidarity with an institution that exists for the public good. The papers, over sixty years’ worth, had been accumulating in the stables, and during the time I was at Quincy, I would bring them out in a wheelbarrow to work through them in the garden, overlooked by curious cows in the adjoining field. The details of the conversations have faded (though my audioboom audio diary series of the trip survives), but what remains for me so vividly is the warmth of John and Beverly’s hospitality (a concept John returns to often in his writing): the light in John’s eyes, intense but always playful, his laugh, his attention to not only talking but to listening- really listening.

Berger1 Berger3

Berger2 Berger4
Snapshots from Jamie Andrews' trip to John Berger's home the Haute-Savoie to collect the Berger Archive.

These same qualities have been identified, with such affection, by so many of his collaborators, and his life and achievements have been summed up brilliantly in many different spaces in the past week. Now that John is no longer here, it is also perhaps legitimate to reflect on the significance of his archive. Talking about his donation of his papers, John explained that what really appealed to him was not the preservation of his own work, but archives’ ability to sustain relationships…even beyond the grave. ‘What interests me about the existence of archives is that you enter the past which is as it were in the present tense. And so it’s another way of people who lived in the past who perhaps are still living or perhaps are dead; a way of them being present.’ Like many of the characters in his beautiful 2005 book Here is Where We Meet, John is gone. But the archive remains, and so do the affective ties that linked John to friends and collaborators across the world, and that the archive can continue (in its own small way) to record and sustain.

Ways of Seeing —the book version of the 1972 iconoclastic BBC art series, for which Berger perhaps remains most known—closes with the injunction: ‘To be continued by the reader…’. An obituary suggests closure, but the true vitality of John Berger’s thinking and spirit is the certain assurance that they will, indeed, be continued.

Jamie Andrews

Head of Culture and Learning

John Berger reading from Bento’s Sketchbook at the British Library on 23 May 2011.

The archive of John Berger, and of many of his colleagues and collaborators, is available to consult in the British Library Manuscripts Reading Room.