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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  

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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.

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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.


24 November 2016

The Elastic System: What Can You Do with a Library?

There have been several artistic residences at the British Library. Using the Library's collections to make new work, they usually focus on some definable part of the archives, like First World War newspapers or a great writer's travel diaries. But my year-long project is the first time that an artist has been allowed access to the British Library's internal operational systems themselves.

Elastic System photography_smaller

The question the project tried to answer was how to take the Library's own digital infrastructure – its catalogue databases and electronic requesting networks – and use it to make art. Or something interesting and outside of their normal functioning. What could you use all the abilities of a modern library system for, apart from just retrieving items?

In order to help me answer this question Library staff have been incredibly generous with their time and the whole experience has been endlessly fascinating. I think it is probably the most rewarding project I have ever worked on!

The initial direction in my research was prompted by one of the earliest experiences I had when I came to the library – seeing the iconic King’s Library Tower in the centre. It is the only complete part of the collection still on permanent public display.

This led me to question how and why allowing the public to just walk in and browse the bookshelves had become more and more difficult under the pressures of an enormously expanding collection, eventually leading to the development of today’s electronic systems of cataloguing and requesting. In fact, the latest storage facilities in Boston Spa are robot-operated buildings where efforts to maximise efficiency and control environment mean that humans cannot normally enter the space at all.

My response to this is a 'database portrait' of the librarian Thomas Watts that is also a work about how we try to store and allow access to massive quantities of information. In 1838 Watts invented his innovative 'elastic system' of storage and shelfmarking in order to deal with the growth of the British Library's holdings. This could be cited as one of the first modern attempts to rethink the problem of organising information. By the 1850s this had also led to his involvement in efforts to improve efficiency by removing the bookshelves from direct public access.

I decided to use the Library's cataloguing and requesting data to create a new kind of 'elastic system'. My own Elastic System consists of a mosaic image of Watts that has been generated from 4,300 photos of books currently stored in the basements at St Pancras. Each one is connected live to the Library's electronic requesting system. It functions like a catalogue, allowing people to visually browse part of the British Library's collections, something which has not been possible since Watts' time.

Elastic System_ LK Blog_smaller

By clicking on a book visitors can find out more about the item and how to request it from the British Library. When a book is requested it is removed from the 'shelf' to reveal a second image underneath, an image that represents the work that goes on in the library's underground storage basements, the hidden part of the modern requesting system.

In order to produce the basement image I spent two days working with the basement staff at St. Pancras, photographing them according to their suggestions about how to represent the work they did, their favourite aisles, items in the collection or in-jokes. In all I took 383 photographs of 31 members of staff, nearly half of the basement team. In doing this, I tried to show that with a collection as large and as diverse as the British Library's, its successful operation depends on a well-tuned human element in the system, which although it is as essential as the electronic networks, is probably less visible and less appreciated, existing literally under the ground. Ironically, Thomas Watts himself began his career at the library in a similar role of 'Placer'. It was said that he personally placed a total of 400,000 items on the shelves of which he could recall the exact location of 100,000!

This work is part of a research project called The Internet of Cultural Things, a partnership between me (Richard Wright), Dr Mark Cote (KCL) and Professor Jussi Parikka (WSA) with wide representation from the British Library, including Jamie Andrews, Head of Culture and Learning, Dr Aquiles Alencar Brayner and Dr David Waldock. The aim of this research is to make visible the cultural data generated in public institutions and to illuminate and transform the way both people and cultural institutions interact. “Elastic System” encapsulates the many layers of an information ecology that makes up the British Library: visual, data and infrastructural systems in co-operation as a living organism of data.

You can explore the Elastic System by visiting the website:

Richard Wright

Artist in Residence