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Behind the scenes at the British Library


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

01 December 2020

The most popular British Library content of 2020

As we come to the close of the year we look back at some of our highlights and what we've published that our readers have loved most.

We are always intrigued to know which of our collection items are most frequently viewed on our website. The top five from this year, in reverse order were: the stunning painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel, Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, artist Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier's painting, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and finally, the most popular – by a country mile – was Beowulf

Meanwhile, our blogs brought you a rich mix of highlights and news from our collection. Three of our most read posts included the astonishing possessions of King Henry VIII (bespoke wardrobe collections, jewels, books, munitions, ships), the sounds you might have been missing under lockdown and unsurprisingly our thrilling work to digitise our Kings Topographical collection of maps and make it freely available to a global audience on Flickr. Lastly, they say the old ones are the best, and that certainly seems true of our Digitised Manuscripts blog that still seems to delight audiences with this Knight vs. Snail post from 2013.

We’re very grateful for the staggering 1.9 million Twitter followers who enjoy the regular encounters with the collection we publish. Our most popular posts this year say a lot about you and what you value in us. At number one is our Leonardo Da Vinci gif in which we reflected on the incredible achievements the human mind has been capable of throughout history. A close second was our conservation-themed riff on the ‘how it’s going meme’ that circulated in October:

Twitter How it is going

Our Instagram channel features some of our most visually stunning collection items, and unsurprisingly our most successful post was this miniature book made by Charlotte Bronte, part of our #collectionsunited campaign:

IG Collections United

And as everyone knows the internet is just wild about cats – as were our followers who enjoyed the ever present cat at our re-opening operations this summer:

IG - Int Cat Day

Our thank you post to those who visited us when we did re-open was another strong performer:

IG Re-opening thank you

And we ran a caption competition for the covers of our new Crime classics series, which captured peoples’ imaginations and sometimes drew unrepeatable suggestions:

IG Crime Classics Caption comp post

Jumping across to Facebook, the nature of our followers is reflected in the popularity of our International Kindness Day post in November:

FB Int Kindness Day post

Meanwhile this Axel Scheffler video, part of our Discovering Children's Books campaign, inspired families with imaginative activities for children during the first lockdown this summer.

It has been a busy year and we have dedicated it to bringing our collection to our readers, followers and users through all our digital channels while we've been apart from one another to stay safe. We hope you've enjoyed the fruits if our labour and we have so much more planned for 2021 - watch this space (or subscribe to our emails, follow us on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter).   

Hannah Gabrielle, Head of Digital Engagement

30 November 2020

Enabling access for everyone: the British Library’s content strategy 2020-2023

A montage showing people at an issue desk, a man using a tablet device, readers at desks in a Reading Room, and people using computers.

Today we publish Enabling access for everyone, a new document that sets out the British Library’s strategy for contemporary published content for the period 2020-2023.

Legal Deposit – the regulations that enable the Library collect a copy of every UK print and digital publication – remains the foundation of our collection-building activity. This content strategy focuses on the active collecting we do above and beyond Legal Deposit, in relation to contemporary published content. Heritage Acquisitions are governed separately, by our Heritage Acquisitions Policy.

The content strategy published today sets out how we will continue to build the national collection of contemporary published content, which we define as printed and digital content published from 1945 onwards.

Our priority is to provide access to content using the most cost effective means to help everyone access the information they need, now and in the future.

The strategy determines:

  • What contemporary published content we collect or connect to, why and for whom.
  • How that content is acquired and stored or how it is linked to.
  • How that content is made available to everyone, in the short and long term.

We want to ensure we are collecting and providing access to content that’s needed by all our users, including academics, businesses, policymakers and the public. Our strategy provides transparency by explaining the thinking behind what we acquire, and the principles that will inform the choices we make in future.

A lot has changed in the seven years since the last content strategy was published, and we need to respond to changes in technology, publishing and user behaviour. In particular, we need to provide remote access to more content so that our users – both individuals and organisations who use On Demand, our document supply service – can keep working, wherever they are. The recent lockdowns resulting from the pandemic have made this dimension more urgent than ever.

We’re realistic about what we can achieve in the current environment, and it’s not achievable, affordable or appropriate for us to collect everything.  With the exception of Legal Deposit, which remains the foundation of our collection-building activity, we do not aim to collect comprehensively. There are many other libraries and organisations that collect, store and preserve information, much of it available online. We work in the context of this global network, which is why our 2013 content strategy included the principle that connecting to content would become more important. This principle continues.

Our content strategy is expressed in summary form as guiding principles, which guide our decision-making. We’ve also developed overarching priorities, subject priorities, and areas of focus for each collection area. You can find out more about these in the content strategy document.

The strategy is about enabling access for everyone to the information they need – whatever their background, characteristics or location. Through it, we aim to generate more public value for individuals, organisations, business and wider society, and to support the research infrastructure of the UK in this time of national recovery and renewal and beyond.

See more information and the summary and full content strategy documents.

Liz Jolly, Chief Librarian, and Sally Halper, Head of Content Strategy & Services

16 November 2020

A timely take on food writing

A guest blog by Mallika Basu, food writer and commentator. Mallika leads our Food Writing online courses.

Food is love. While dinner parties with overflowing tables may temporarily be on hold, there is nothing to stop us passionate food lovers from whetting our appetites by spilling words onto a page. From odes to seasonal quince and much-needed mindful eating, to restoration of a kitchen dating back to the early 19th century, the British Library is giving us all a chance to get our tastes tingling about the basic ingredients of food writing filled with flavour. I’ve recently lead two perfectly plated food writing online courses for the Library, and begin to repeat the series again this December. It feels timely, for a number of reasons.

Comparative sizes of a swan's egg, turkey's egg, duck's egg, plover's egg

Food writing has evolved considerably since I started as a blogger fourteen years ago, as has my prose mercifully. Alongside my cookbooks and food columns, I have had a successful career in the communications industry. As an “ethnic” food writer who focuses on Indian cookery and putting spice cupboards to better use, running these courses is an incredible opportunity for me to address unconscious bias and cultural appropriation in a public forum with a responsible and engaged audience. I bring a unique perspective to these courses, rooting them in the here and now.

We have less time than ever. How we access information has been transformed by digital and social media. No longer is it acceptable to live in a vacuum of social awareness. The first course starts with this – the context within which food writing functions today. We then explore sound principles of writing and move on to food writing tips that make sure no reader is left with an unintended sour taste in their mouth.

Illustration of various cheeses

If it all sounds a bit earnest, I can assure you it is far from. In between the tips, we found plenty of time to chat about what inspires and moves us, share practical tips of our own and wax lyrical about cookbooks, food scientists, food memoirs and restaurant critics we love and hate. I roped in a small handful of my talented and well-established food writers to offer their own nuggets of advice, which ranged from the practical (stop procrastinating and just get writing) to the essential (please hold on to your sense of humour).

The practical part of the session gives us a chance to whip what we’ve learnt into action. I would tell you more, but I might give the finale away for the next course on 3 December.

In a sign of the times, it feels apt to deliver these courses online. After all, technology has allowed us to think beyond the realms of possibility. Who knew we would be cooking, eating and drinking wine with friends on video calls? If the feedback so far is anything to go by, it gives attendees more than a taste of how to be a better food writer.     

Cover of book by Mallika Basu called "Masala"

Mallika leads the Food Writing: The Basics course on 3 December. For more ways to feed your curious mind from whenever you are, stay up to date with our online courses programme.