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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

The British Library

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

We continue our archives and libraries series with a conversation with Katie McElvanney, a Slavonic and East European Curator at the British Library. Read on to learn about Katie's career path and the British Library's rich Slavonic and East European collections, which include a wealth of digital resources, a little-known collection of Displaced Persons camp publications, and many more fascinating items.

PH: What was your journey into working at the British Library?

In 2014, I began a collaborative PhD in Russian History with Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and the British Library. I was primarily based at the British Library for the duration of the project, which involved working on the Library’s 2017 centenary exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths. I also worked extensively with the H. W. Williams Papers, a collection of documents relating to the White movement in the Russian Civil War and in emigration, and began to catalogue the archive. My doctoral research focused on women and journalism during the 1917 Russian revolutions and Civil War.

I knew from the early stages of my PhD that I wanted to pursue a career in the heritage sector rather than academia and working at the British Library as part of my project gave me invaluable practical experience in this area. In the fourth year of my PhD, I spent three months doing research cover for a curatorial colleague and was responsible for the day-to-day management and custodianship of the Library’s Russian Collections. Following this, I worked at the Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics Library at the University of Cambridge as a Slavonic specialist, where I began learning Ukrainian. In June 2019, I began my current role as a Slavonic and East European Curator at the British Library, with particular responsibility for the Ukrainian and Belarusian collections.

The British Library

PH: Do you have any hidden gems in your collections? What do you have that has rarely or never been used by researchers?

M. Dombrovskyĭ, Pidruchnyk shofera (Regensburg, 1946). 08773.aa.2. Title page of a manual for Ukrainian driving school students published in a camp for displaced persons.

We definitely have many ‘hidden’ gems in the collections! One of our roles as curators is to promote and improve access to collections for users through public engagement, research and cataloguing projects. Most recently, I have been working to highlight the Library’s little-known collection of Displaced Persons (DP) camp publications – books and periodicals produced in and around DP camps in Europe (predominantly Germany and Austria) between 1945 and 1955. The languages of these publications include Ukrainian, Latvian, Russian, Polish, Yiddish and Belarusian and among the titles are editions of famous literary and historical works, accounts of internment in Nazi concentration camps, political manifestos, practical guides and manuals, and children’s books. Many are written and/or illustrated by prominent writers and artists, and contain stamps and other information key to understanding the activities, networks and governance of the camps and DP and émigré communities.

Lev Iatskevych, Parovyi verbliud, illustrated by Edvard Kozak (Munich, 1947). RF.2022.a.25 Cover of a children’s book (‘The Steam Camel’) produced for Ukrainian children in a DP camp.

Unfortunately, many of these items are difficult to find in the catalogue as the historical metadata is often inconsistent and incomplete. To address this, we set up a 3-month PhD placement project to improve catalogue records and delve deeper into the collection. Focusing on Ukrainian DP publications, our fantastic researcher, Anna Isaieva, uncovered a wealth of information relating to the provenance of items in the collection and enhanced approximately 75 catalogue records.

You can find out more about the project in the third episode of "Transit", the new podcast on migration history at the Department of Contemporary History at the University of Vienna. You can find out more about the episode here.

The Library advertises a number of PhD placement projects each year and these are a fantastic way to gain experience in the heritage sector.

PH: Do you have any digital collections at the British Library?

Where to start! In addition to subscribing to a variety of databases and electronic resources, the Library has also digitised and made available a huge number of collection items, including books, maps, manuscripts and music. This includes over 600,000 items digitised in partnership with Google Books. Archive collections from around the world digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme are also available via the British Library catalogue.

In terms of digital collections relating specifically to the regions of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the Library has a growing number of digital archives, newspapers and databases. Resources include Election Ephemera Collections; Belarus Anti-Fascist Resistance Press, 1942-1945; Central and Eastern European Online Library; The Chernobyl Files: Declassified Documents of the Ukrainian KGB; Kavkaz Digital Archive; Demokratychna Ukraina Digital Archive; and Literaturnaia gazeta Digital Archive. The full list is available here and it is now possible for registered Readers to access most of the Library’s East View e-resources remotely on a personal device. You can find more information about how to do this on our blog.

Belarusian anti-fascist resistance leaflet, 1942. From the Belarus Anti-Fascist Resistance Leaflets and Press digital collections. Credit: East View

PH: What are the main challenges of managing your collections?

Despite the diversity of the Library’s Slavonic and East European resources, considerable work is still needed to address inaccuracies, contested interpretations and gaps in the collections. This includes issues regarding metadata, subject headings, harmful material, subjectivity and the political implications of cataloguing as well as the use of discriminatory language.

We are pleased to co-supervise a collaborative PhD project with QMUL from autumn 2023, which will seek to advance postcolonial discourse in East European studies by focusing on the Library’s unique Belarusian collection. The findings of this project will yield an analytical framework for review and policy that has relevance and applicability for the entire British Library Slavonic and East European collection.

PH: Does the British Library engage in any public outreach activities?

The British Library runs and hosts a diverse programme of public, school and community events and workshops, many of which are available to watch via the British Library Player. It also has rotating exhibitions and displays throughout the year, including an upcoming Treasures Gallery display focusing on the work of the Ukrainian poet, writer and artist Taras Shevchenko.

Facsimile of the first edition of Taras Shevchenko, Kobzar (L’viv, 1914). C.121.a.20.

On a departmental level, we promote the collections and engage with the public through the European Studies Blog (guest posts welcome!), Twitter (@BL_European) and workshops, such as a 2022 workshop for the online residency Ukraine Lab. We also take part in the annual series of Doctoral Open Days at the Library.

PH: Is there anything you wish more people knew about the British Library?

I’m going to give a final plug for the Library’s online resources and collections – and the fact that many are available remotely even without a Reader Pass! And if you have any queries about the collections, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Further information:

British Library homepage

Information on the British Library's Slavonic collections can found here.

Electronic library search catalogue

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