Digital curator

Former academic Joanna Newman is leading the British Library's efforts to engage universities in a high-tech era

February 12, 2009

The British Library has appointed a former lecturer and journalist as its new head of higher education.

Joanna Newman said she was "delighted" to be given the role, adding: "As the digital revolution changes the landscape, the British Library will continue to play a vital role by ... working in partnership with the sector."

She has an academic background, having earned a PhD from the University of Southampton on "Refugees and the British West Indies, 1933-1945", which drew on calypsos and personal testimonies as well as official archives. She went on to work as a lecturer at University College London and the University of Warwick, as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal Europe, and as executive director (arts & education) at the London Jewish Cultural Centre. She joined the British Library in January 2007 as higher education projects and partnerships manager.

Although curators have long had strong relationships with individual academics, it was only in 2007 that the library set out ten strategic goals for engagement with its biggest audience, the higher education sector.

These included closer links with funding and research councils, government departments and the Research Information Network, as well as vice-chancellors, university librarians and postgraduate researchers. As part of this process, Dr Newman initiated a number of free training days for researchers. Each offered an introduction to the library, a session on how to make the most of its resources and a choice of workshops with curators on different parts of its collection.

Rather different was the competition Dr Newman organised to tie in with the library's exhibition, Breaking the Rules, which invited "postgrad creatives" to "design a piece of work that embraces the spirit of the European avant-garde". It was won by Rebecca Pohancenik, a student working for an MA in curating contemporary design at Kingston University.

In her new role, Dr Newman is leading a major study with the Joint Information Systems Committee into the research behaviour of "Generation Y" scholars.

She also points to new ways the library is providing the sector with crucial resources. Recently, for example, the whole of the Burney Collection - a treasure trove of fragile 17th- and 18th-century news material - was digitised and made available free to any higher or further education institution that signs a licence.

She seems to relish the challenges ahead. The British Library is "the world's leading research library ... and not just a storehouse of books. That is what's so inspiring."

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