British Library commits to becoming an anti-racist organisation

View of people researching at the British Library. Photo by Tony Antoniou

The British Library has made a commitment to its staff and its users that it will become an actively anti-racist organisation, and will take all the necessary steps required to make this promise a reality.

At an online meeting on 30 June 2020 to which all British Library staff were invited, the Library’s Chief Executive Roly Keating spoke of the urgent need for a “generational shift”, to ensure that the Library becomes truly representative in terms of its staff, collections and the users it serves.

Speaking to staff, Roly Keating said: “The killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement are the biggest challenge to the complacency of organisations, institutions and ways of doing things that we’re likely to see in our lifetimes. There have been incremental changes over the years, but this is a wake-up call for the Library’s leadership that it’s not enough. Our duty at this moment is to show humility, to listen, to learn and then to enact change.”

Issues discussed in the meeting included the long-standing lack of BAME representation within the Library’s executive management as well as senior curatorial staff, along with the urgent and overdue need to reckon fully and openly with the colonial origins and legacy of some of the Library’s historic collections and practices. The Library also needs to ensure that its spaces, events, exhibitions and policies are genuinely inclusive and representative of and for Black communities.

To address these issues, the Library will fund and implement an Anti-Racism action plan, with recommendations developed over the next two months by a Working Group including members of the BAME Staff Network, which has played a leading role in highlighting institutional issues of racial inequality, along with other staff members drawn from across the Library. Over the course of the summer, the working group will explore the full range of issues relating to systemic and other forms of racism, with a view to making recommendations for public and accountable actions, targets and time-frames in the autumn.

Chief Librarian Liz Jolly said to staff: “The murder of George Floyd has shown that we’re good at saying that we don’t believe in racism, but I have to say as Chief Librarian that we haven’t done enough to ensure that this organisation is anti-racist, and I apologise for that. In convening the Anti-Racism Working Group this is our chance to get it right. The group will make recommendations both in terms of immediate actions and longer term proposals that we will integrate into our strategy and our culture, to make us a truly anti-racist organisation, in a wide-ranging and sustainable way.”

An immediate action has been taken to add the Chairs of the BAME Network to the Library’s Strategic Leadership Team, alongside those of other Staff Networks and the Trade Unions, to increase diversity of voice at the highest level in its decision making.  The Library’s Board has made significant improvements to its diversity in the past two years, with four of its 13 members now people from BAME backgrounds.

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Ben Sanderson
The British Library
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The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.