Our stories

Inside the British Library

There is no time for complacency, the next attack on knowledge is about to happen.

Richard Ovenden, Burning the Books (2020)

The British Library has been a news story of late, and not a happy one. On 28 October 2023 the Library fell victim to a cyber-attack. A criminal group named Rhysida infiltrated the Library’s network, extracting 600GB of data, or around half a million documents, some of it personal files relating to Library users and staff. The group then demanded that a ransom be paid, in return for which it would restore the systems and return the stolen data. Naturally the British Library refused to pay, resulting in the data being made available by Rhysida on the Dark Web for anyone who wanted to buy it.

As part of the process of extracting the data, the gang wrecked or encrypted substantial parts of the Library’s server network, rendering it unusable. Painstaking work is underway to repair BL electronic system, exacerbated by what the Library admits was a creaky IT infrastructure, parts of which cannot be restored (for assorted reasons), so will need to be replaced. Underlying the rebuild is the fear of what gremlins lurk amid the digital wreckage. The last thing they want is for further destruction or the exposure of more server loopholes.

All of this means a long process of recovery, during which time the BL has gone back to the stone age, or rather the paper age. For those of us who remember how the Library was in its British Museum round reading room days, the situation is rather nostalgic. Collection items have to be requested by filling out paper forms, on which you have to write firmly in pencil you ensure that a clear copy is made underneath. Reference staff look up shelfmarks by consulting lengthy lists of numbers. Then you wait, and hope. Sadly what I also remember from British Museum days was the ill-temper shown by some researchers when the antiquated system moved to slowly for them, and I have heard too many tales of current reading room staff being abused by irate users who do not understand what the realities of a cyberattack mean for such an institution but are certain that their book/thesis/article is the most important thing on God’s earth. Sigh.

The reactions to the news of the cyberattack are a combination of horror at the very idea of anyone attacking knowledge, to a certain amount of relief from fellow institutions that it has not happened to them (yet). There has been some occasionally muddled comment on the value of digital content against physical print, when digitisation of texts is only a part of a modern national library’s digital collections – which include born digital items such as web archives, e-books, current broadcast media and so on. As far as we know, from what has been reported by the Library (which has been commendably honest about what has happened to it and what its plans are to repair things), its digital collections themselves are safe, but the infrastructure that supported them is in a ruinous state, with new or repaired services some way off. Not only has the cyberattack returned the BL to an ordering system once thought lost to history, but it has returned the Library to a world where print is dominant. I always used to argue, when I worked at the BL, that – numerically speaking – print was only a tiny part of what was mostly a vast digital collection. Now, for the time being, print is dominant once more.

The bricks and mortar of the British Library still stand, unshaken by any digital tremors, though the place has a shattered air. A place that traditionally has presented such a confident front has been hit hard twice, by COVID and now the sucker punch of the cyberattack. The damage has been as much psychic as electronic. I went there on a Saturday, to do a little research but chiefly to see an exhibition and attend a festival. Both had something to say about what such a library is, beyond the physical, and why the attack on it has been not so much about what the Library holds as what it represents.

Beyond the Bassline exhibition

The exhibition was Beyond the Bassline: 500 Years of Black British Music. The exhibition was conceived of by Mikael Riley of the University of Westminster and formerly of British reggae outfit Steel Pulse (how cool is that?), and my onetime colleague Andy Linehan, who as pop music curator at the BL was often said to have the best job in the world. Andy retired from the Library in 2022, around the same time as me, and we congratulated one another as we looked forward to a fruitful retirement. Not much more than a year later he was dead.

So it was with a rueful heart that I visited the exhibition, but also with a sense of how pleased he would have been with an exhibition which gets not only the content but the tone so right. For this is a different kind of exhibition. It documents the history of Black British music from John Blanke, the now famous African Tudor musician who played for Henry VIII, to (ironically enough) the changing worlds of music in cyberspace. It crams in a lot, despite what I sensed were tough budget constraints. The early sections are particularly engrossing, featuring 18thC letter-writer, shop-owner and composer Ignatius Sancho, 19th/20th century composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (for a time a choirmaster here in Rochester), 30s swing band leader Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and radio singing favourite Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson. We move on to carnival, jazz, reggae, pop, jungle and grime. Inevitably there are gaps – why, if you include Adelaide Hall as an American artist who flourished in 30s/40s Britain, is there nothing on Paul Robeson or Elisabeth Welch? And why note the importance of early jazz but leave out the flourishing of contemporary British jazz – Ezra Collective, Nubya Garcia, Xhosa Cole, and so on?

Mosaic featuring in the Beyond the Bassline exhibition

People and themes will always fail to make the cut, of course. What does fill some spaces in the exhibition are not collection objects but contemplative pieces – commissioned artworks, video installations, a listening room “exploring the radical potential of Black British music to manifest reparative futures” (whatever that might mean). This could seem at first sight to be short-changing the visitors. But gradually I saw that it was a fundamental part of making the exhibition not about objects that we have to show you, but you the audience being in ownership of the story. The words “our story” and “our music” get repeated throughout the exhibition and its accompanying literature. In presentation, it barely seemed to be from a place called the British Library at all – except that the British Library had purposefully enabled it that way.

On next to the European Writers’ Festival, taking place in the Library’s conference centre. Here a wide variety of authors from across Europe (thirty were advertised but not all turned up), all of whom had works that had been translated into English, took part in a series of panel interviews broadly addressing the theme of ‘transformation’. We are told that translated fiction is on the up-and-up in the UK, with 1.9m translated fiction titles sold here in 2022, accounting for 3.3% of all UK fiction sales, with an increasing interest among the young (24.9% of all translated fiction sold in the UK in 2022 was bought by 25-34 year olds, up from 21% in 2021).

Luke Harding in discussion with Andrey Kurkov (right)

I can’t say that I had heard of Bulgaria’s Joanna Elmy, the Netherlands’ Simone Atangana Bekono, or Romania’s Ioana Pârvulescu, but I have seen those like them placed with increased prominence on bookshop displays, issued by such imaginative publishers as Fitzcarraldo, Pushkin Press and Istros Books, and designed so stylishly that you know you will look, and be, a wiser, more engaged person simply for having bought one. I certainly had heard of the star attraction, Andrey Kurkov, Ukrainian author of Death and the Penguin. Interviewed by The Guardian‘s Like Harding, he was the epitome of wit, eloquence and insight. Sometimes, I thought, as he deftly unpicked the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, the only way to understand history is to laugh at it.

Kurkov’s underlying theme, as it was for all the other speakers, was stories: our stories. We are what we say of ourselves, not what others say about us. We own those stories, and have a right to be heard because we do. It’s not whether such stories have a greater purchase on the truth, simply because we tell them, but they say that we exist (we meaning a people, a race, a gender, or whatever) because we have these stories to tell. So it was that festival and exhibition, seemingly only linked by location and date, came out of the same impulse: to be heard, and to have ownership of your own stories.

The British Library

Why do libraries want to be a home for stories? Their function ought to be a simple one – to store objects that contain useful knowledge and to have these available to those who have need of them. Yet increasingly they tell us that they are a home for stories – that is, people’s narratives – which they express to us through exhibitions, festivals, publications and the like, all of which are fine in themselves but not obviously central to the function of a library. There can be an element of desperation about it, the library wanting to be seen as meaningful to new and younger audiences, to please the paymasters, to avoid be seen as merely a row of books on shelves serving silent people hunched over desks. What need does all this pleading for our attention serve?

The need must be a profound one. The reactions people had to the news of the cyberattack was not to collections per se, but to the idea of knowledge under threat. The criminals had tried to destroy our stories. They didn’t know that this is what they were doing, but that only makes the crime greater – the sheer ignorance and indifference of it. In his polemical study, Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack, Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden lists five functions of libraries and archives that we lose when they are lost or destroyed. They are:

  • They support the education of society as a whole and of specific communities within it
  • They provide a diversity of knowledge and ideas
  • They support the well-being of citizens and the principles of the open society through the preservation of key rights and through encouraging integrity in decision-making
  • They provide a fixed reference point, allowing truth and falsehood to be judged through transparency, verification, citation and reproducibility
  • They help root societies in their cultural and historical identities through preserving the written record of those societies and cultures

Aside from the narrow insistence on the written record (films, sound, images, please) this is a noble and accurate set of statements. Where do stories fit in? Throughout, I think. They are about education, diversity, well-being, reference and identities, interconnectedly so. You could come up with a sixth function that says something like the library is a safe place where our stories can be told, but those five words tell us what stories might be told and what their value can be, within the context of the library. At a time when it feels too many want their narrative to drown out all others, we have to champion every voice. Those who attack us do not want us to be heard. That’s why libraries must be a home for stories.



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