A Life with Libraries: BDS interviews Caroline Brazier

Caroline Brazier, Chief Librarian at the British Library, has devoted her career to expanding and defining for the future the role of the library in our culture. As she approaches her recently announced retirement, BDSLife went to visit her to talk about her formative years, her achievements and her belief in the future of the library…

A Life with Libraries

Building an ecosystem of libraries through partnerships and communities

How did you become interested in librarianship?

My first experience of libraries was playing at libraries when I was a child. I had a relative who worked in the local public library which was throwing away lots of old books. So, my relative brought back children’s books from the nineteen thirties’ and forties’. I was about five at the time and I just loved playing with these books. Within the books there were cards. I asked, “what are these cards?” When I found out, I started making tickets for all my dolls and teddy-bears, so they could borrow books. There was something about playing these games that fascinated and formed me. And then, using school libraries and the public library as I grew up, I remember thinking how kind and helpful librarians were.
Six months before I was old enough to join the adult library, I remember looking forlornly around the children’s library and one of the librarians asking me, “are you having trouble finding a book?” I replied, “I think I have read all of these”. She said that she would talk to the adult librarian to see if I could join the adult library early. I thought “Wow! The power of these people.” That power, I realised later, is the power to help people. I found the books in the adult library a treasure trove and I felt so special, getting access to this at the age of eleven and a half rather than twelve.
I have heard other such stories from librarians: the local librarian really helped me, really inspired me. I am one of those people who had really positive formative influences around libraries. I grew up thinking libraries are good things, libraries are good places, the people who work in libraries are good people, they must have rewarding, fulfilling jobs because they can help people.

When did your fascination turn into a career?

I didn’t have a clue about what career I wanted until my last year at university when two things happened. I went to the careers’ library, and there were so many options, but few which excited me. . Then I came across a box of information on librarianship and then, at the same time, I picked up a summer job working in a college library. I had already done volunteer work in libraries but this was my first real job in a library. I looked further into this career and decided to apply for a year-long SCONUL traineeship at Trinity College, Dublin. I was offered the traineeship. I then came back to library school in London. Then I had to find a real job.
This was at the time of the first Thatcher government and there was a definite squeeze on resources. I had decided I wanted to work in the higher education sector and I was offered a temporary job back in Ireland, so I went there, thinking it was for a year. Twenty years later I was still there. I worked in four different university libraries in Ireland from 1982 to 2002. Then I was offered a job at the British Library and I have been here for the past 16 years.

Can you tell us something about how you came to the British Library?

Working at the British Library came about through my final job in Ireland. At Trinity College Dublin, one of the 6 UK legal deposit libraries, we were working with the BL on legal deposit. We were developing the argument to expand print legal deposit to cover born digital material. We had voluntary arrangements to collect CDs and other hand held digital formats, but from the late 1990s we had been trying to get the law changed to allow us to collect online digital content. So, I got to know the BL and was fascinated by it. I applied and was offered a job and joined the BL as Head of Collection Acquisition and Description in 2002.

Can you tell us more about the history of legal deposit and Ireland?

The history of this link between Trinity College Dublin and UK legal deposit dates back to 1800 when the Irish Parliament in Dublin and the British Parliament in Westminster were merged. . As a consequence, UK-wide laws were applied to Ireland, including legal deposit in relation to Trinity College, Dublin. In the 1920s, when Ireland became independent the new Irish government retained many of the existing UK laws and wrote them into Irish law over time. So, reciprocal ar