Towards a National Collection

1809 map showing Roman roads in Britain
Image taken from page 137 of 'The Description of Britain, translated [by H. Hatcher] from Richard of Cirencester; with the original treatise De Situ Britanniæ; and a commentary on the Itinerary [by T. Leman]. Lat. and Eng' (London: J. Wright & Co., 1809).

British Library involvement in AHRC Programme Towards a National Collection

Published date:

The British Library is part of a new £19 million national programme – Towards a National Collection - that will take the first steps towards creating a unified virtual ‘national collection’. Funded by UK Research and Innovation and led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) this five-year research programme aims to transform the way that cultural treasures and unique collections located in the UK can be discovered, accessed, researched and enjoyed by audiences across the globe.

A consortium of world-renowned museums, galleries, libraries and heritage organisations recognised by UKRI as Independent Research Organisations (IROs) will work together with other cultural organisations and universities across the UK to use digital technologies to create new opportunities for research, enable new stories to be told, and make new connections between disparate areas of the past and the present. The programme will extend collaborations between universities, regional partners and IROs to share knowledge, skills and capacity across the UK, preparing the ground for further research collaborations at both a national and international scale.

Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, and Chair of the Towards a National Collection (TaNC) Steering Committee:

This programme aims to understand and address some of the key challenges that stand in the way of collections working together at scale in the digital age; and unlock these cultural assets for new research purposes and audiences online.

With significant investment of UKRI and AHRC, we can begin to generate radically different ways of doing research across collections, redefining how individuals and communities can engage and interact with UK heritage, and in doing so enrich our understanding of what a national collection might actually be.


Opening UK Heritage to the World

Image of a row of books, with 'INFORMED' written across the spines. 

The AHRC has appointed Rebecca Bailey, Head of Exhibitions and Outreach for Historic Environment Scotland, as the Programme Director, and have formally announced the eight foundation projects that will be technology pathfinders for the first phase of the programme. The British Library is directly involved in three of these projects, working closely with other UK national heritage organisations and universities:

Persistent Identifiers as IRO Infrastructure – led by Rachael Kotarski (the Library’s Head of Research Infrastructure Services) – will explore the benefits of using globally unique identifiers across collections, and how to implement them to support persistence, improve discovery, and enable tracking and citation of heritage collections.

Locating a National Collection – led by Gethin Rees (the Library’s Lead Curator Digital Map Collections) – will investigate how combining geo-spatial metadata across collections can open up new forms of research, engagement and interaction for different audiences.

Practical Applications of IIIF as a Building Block Towards a Digital National Collection – led by the National Gallery with Torsten Reimer (the Library’s Head of Research Services)  will examine use of the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) as a pathway to creating high quality, interactive image resources and tools across digital collections.

The themes for the eight foundation projects reflect the aspirations and challenges we have in the evolution of the digital heritage collections of the British Library and other organisations in this space.

If you would like to know more about the foundation projects listed above and how to get involved, please email the Research Development Team


Discovery projects

Book illustration showing three children standing in a row in profile, brushing each other's backs. 

The most substantial portion of funding (circa £15 million) for the programme will support up to five large-scale interdisciplinary ‘discovery’ research projects. Each of these projects will involve a core collaboration between one or more AHRC IROs, UK Higher Education Institutions, as well as local and regional cultural, third sector, community and technology partners. Discovery projects will be funded for up to £3 million (80 per cent fEC) for a period of up to 36 months, commencing by 1 December 2021.

The AHRC call for outline bids for Discovery Projects has now closed.


As the programme’s name implies, Towards a National Collection, is a journey and the Library is excited and pleased to be taking that journey with its partners and collaborators, past, present and future.


Images from the British Library's Flickr Commons of public domain images.