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20 June 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:51pm

The soft power of the British Library, a Chinese Jane Eyre, and my dreams of a day at the races

Britain is endowed with tremendous assets in terms of its knowledge infrastructure.

By Tessa Blackstone

This week the British Library celebrates 20 years at its main building in St Pancras. Its latest exhibition, James Cook: the Voyages, opens with a haunting blank space: a gigantic map from the 1660 Klencke Atlas that shows the void that represented the limitations of our knowledge of the Pacific before Captain Cook. Over the course of his three famous voyages, Cook and the artists and scientists who travelled with him gradually filled in that blank; as the exhibition reveals, it is a powerful illustration of how the drive to advance human knowledge can transform the world.

After a couple of turbulent years in which many assumptions and institutions have been challenged as never before, as much by disruptive technology as by political upheavals, it can sometimes feel as though our map of the future is as blank and fragmentary as that faced by Cook. But once again the mission to advance knowledge provides us with a compass. Britain is endowed with tremendous assets in terms of its knowledge infrastructure; by investing in these we secure the best hope of charting our future course.

Oracle bones and an eastern Brontë

What most people know about the British Library is that we collect a copy of every book, magazine, newspaper and website published in the UK. We are also one of the great world libraries: our collections include almost every written language, and range from 3,000-year-old Chinese oracle bones to cutting-edge scientific research.  We now try to share our collections and knowledge with audiences internationally, building relationships and sharing expertise. Most recently, we loaned a selection of our greatest literary treasures to institutions in three Chinese cities, where the appetite for British culture is astonishing. 

The fair copy manuscript of Jane Eyre – displayed at the concluding chapter, with its famous line, “Reader, I married him” – attracted enormous interest from both visitors and journalists in Shanghai. Jian Ai, as it is known in Mandarin, is read by many at school, and re-read later in life as affectionately as it is by English-speaking readers.

Such encounters reinforce the message – vital in the post-Brexit landscape – that the UK has an offer that is hugely attractive to Chinese audiences, across literature, culture, tourism and higher education. But if we are to grow into a world leader in the soft power stakes, careful but generous investment will be necessary. Our China project is supported by £1.6m of funding from the Treasury; such visionary support enables us to be more ambitious and target new audiences around the world.

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Your virtual reading room

One of the most exciting aspects of the project has been the online resources it has allowed us to develop. The British Library now has a lively and growing presence on Chinese social media channels WeChat and Weibo, and a Chinese-language website, showcasing more than 200 digitised literary treasures from our collections.

Digitisation allows us to share millions of items from our international collections with audiences online. In collaboration with the Qatar National Library, for example, we are making hundreds of thousands of items relating to Gulf history and Arabic science available. Much of the material derives from the archives of the India Office, and it includes music, maps, ships’ logs, reports, letters and private papers. Researchers around the world can now explore Arabic and English materials that were previously only available in our Reading Rooms at St Pancras. In April we announced a third phase of the Qatar project, which will add another 900,000 images to the 1.5 million already available online.

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Books against Brexit

Last week I was in Paris for the Young Leaders three-day meeting run by the Franco-British Council, which I co-chair with my French counterpart. It brought together around 40 talented people in their thirties starting to make a mark in a wide range of jobs. The second of what will be an annual event, it was marked by an enthusiastic wish by the participants to create a lasting and close Anglo-French network. Emmanuel Macron backed the event by spending time with the participants at the Élysée. This scheme can only be a small counter-weight to Brexit, which was seen as a calamity by these young people.

Nevertheless, bilateral contacts of this kind, with important allies such as France, must be built and sustained. The Library is currently working with the Bibliothèque nationale de France to digitise 800 illuminated manuscripts from the period 700-1200. The project highlights the complex historical ties we share with our European neighbours: either side of the Norman Conquest, there was an extraordinary interchange between France and England with scribes, artists and monks travelling back and forth across the Channel. It is to be hoped that a bond that survived William the Conqueror will also survive withdrawal from the EU.

Cheering on Goldie

I have recently found a new form of escapism from working life. I was persuaded by a colleague in the House of Lords to share in the purchase of a five-year-old Irish steeplechaser. I thought I could spend Saturdays at the racecourse cheering on Friary Gold, known to his supporters as Goldie. The races he has entered so far have all been in the week at meetings some way from London, so when his trip is to Uttoxeter, mine is to William Hill in Horseferry Road to watch on a screen. At my insistence, we called our little syndicate Peers’ Pleasure and not Peers’ Folly as others proposed. There have been no wins or even a place so far but, ever optimistic, I will not concede I was wrong yet.

Tessa Blackstone is a Labour peer and departing chair of the British Library

This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis