Keep those pencils ready

Inigo Thomas

The cover of the British Library’s annual report for 2022-23 features an actor dressed as an elf, who wears an element from an ornate picture frame as a mask and stands before the slate facade of the library’s main building at St Pancras. Creativity and openness appear to be the photograph’s two themes, and they are themes the report wishes to emphasise. The British Library is not an elite institution but is open to everyone: researchers, students, tourists, the residents of the nearby Somers Town housing estate. The desks in the library’s corridors are invariably packed with schoolchildren and students, and you don’t need a reader’s pass to use them. There’s a film club for the homeless. Only the bewildering prices in the library’s cafés aren’t in keeping with its radiating egalitarian spirit.

And there’s to be an expansion: a new building to be constructed just to the north of the library will include 100,000 square feet for a library gallery as well as more desk space for students. In Leeds, the BL is developing its northern branch in a former flax mill, the Temple Works building.

The largest transformation of the last 25 years has been digitalisation – of newspapers, archives, and the library’s colossal catalogue. But in the last week of October the digital dimension of the entire British Library vanished. Just like that. No catalogue, no internet, no way to buy a pencil at the gift shop by card. An early tweet reported ‘technical issues’; a few days later the library said it had been subject to a cyber attack.

It’s no small event when one of the central repositories of the nation’s knowledge is shut down. You couldn’t fairly say that the British Library has been a casualty of its own success, making itself more open, therefore more vulnerable. Whoever wanted to attack the library, whether they wished to prove a point or to hold the institution hostage, would surely have found their way in regardless. Was it a coincidence that the home of the Alan Turing Institute was attacked while Rishi Sunak was holding an AI summit at Bletchley Park? Who’s to say, but the incident is a reminder of how easy it is to take digital networks for granted, and how fragile they are.

Toronto Public Library was also attacked last month. ‘In Canada and around the world right now,’ an expert from Toronto Metropolitan University told CBC, ‘cyber attacks are a multi-billion dollar criminal industry that is highly resourced, it’s highly innovative, and is, unfortunately, highly profitable for the ransomware gangs that launch these attacks. It is not a question of if an institution like the public library or other public sector institutions are going to be attacked, it’s a question of when.’ So keep those pencils ready.

Among the archives and papers at the British Library is the first collection of recipes written in English, The Forme of Cury (from the Old French for ‘cookery’). It’s one of several copies of the manuscript – the original doesn’t exist – and the recipes were written by Richard II’s cooks in the late 14th century. For cabbage soup:

Take Caboches and quarter hem and seeth hem in gode broth with Oynouns y mynced and the whyte of Lekes y slyt and corue [cut] smale and do þer to safroun an salt and force it with powdour douce.

These recipes were written soon after the Black Death. Cooks were no less susceptible than anyone else to the plague, and the cooks at court often fed huge numbers of people – thousands, according to Alan Borg in his History of the Worshipful Company of Cooks. Kitchens were central and of enormous importance: if the cooks were to die there’d be no one to make the cabbage soup, unless the recipe were written down.

With the digital blackout, you can’t order the British Library’s manuscript of The Forme of Cury itself, but you can turn to various printed versions of the recipes. Look up the shelf mark in the printed catalogue for books published before 1979, write its details on a paper request slip and hand that to one of the librarians. All you’ll need is a pencil.