Category Archives: Online

Reading Black History

October is Black History Month and there have been several events in Westminster Libraries (don’t miss Dr Miranda Kaufman’s talk on ‘Africans in Tudor and Stuart London’ on 29 October!), as well as displays of key books in the libraries. But while October serves as a focus for black history, these stories are relevant and interesting throughout the year. To this end, we have compiled a set of book lists – recommended reading for Black History Month and beyond. You can find them linked from the left hand menu on the library catalogue.

BHM book list

Black History Month, known as African-American History Month in America, is an annual observance in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom for remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African Diaspora. Wikepedia states

“The precursor to Black History Month was created in 1926 in the United States, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.” This week was chosen because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and of Frederick Douglass on February 14, both of which dates Black communities had celebrated together since the late 19th century.”

In the United Kingdom it has been celebrated since 1987 and takes place throughout October.

The books listed are a selection of recent novels by contemporary Black writers for both adults and teenagers. The latter are will be found shelved in ‘The Zone’ within Westminster Libraries.

A further list is of a selection of books relating to the contribution the Black community has made to history, culture and society in the United Kingdom.

There is also a selection of biographical and autobiographical works of significant members of the Black community in Britain and elsewhere.

Details of the background to Black History Month can be found on Wikipedia. Details of events taking place nationwide can be found on the UK Black History Month website (which also provides a more extensive reading list).

BHM logoTake a look at our lists and if there’s a book – or a topic – that you feel is missing, please tell us!


The John Peel Show and a teenager’s musical education

‘We’ve had almost everybody, except the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and more recently Oasis. I never really thought Oasis were much good to be honest’.
[John Peel]

The Olivetti Chronicles, by John PeelAt the risk of enraging fans everywhere, this is a sentiment / prejudice I heartily agree with (this lack of endorsement did not seem to hold back Oasis’ progress in the 1990s). Other surprising omissions from Radio 1’s Peel Sessions list were Emerson Lake and Palmer in the 70s and later U2. Bands such as The Smiths and Pulp certainly benefited from national radio exposure. A quirk of Peel’s programme was that once a band became successful he tended to ‘drop’ them from his play list, reasoning that they would be played elsewhere and so did not need the exposure – and anyway their inclusion took up broadcast time away from other performers.

Many bands did not reach the heights after exposure on his programme either as a recorded session or having their record played. In fact John Peel delighted in playing these unknown acts saying “If I didn’t play them, then who else will?”

This Saturday, 25 October, is the tenth anniversary of the death of John Peel. Like many others, my musical life has been hugely influenced by his radio programme, partly because he never stood still in his musical tastes (however much some of his audience wished for a continuation of the familiar). This was highlighted by the many protests from the pre-1976 audience who were dismayed by the programme’s shift towards punk and new wave and away from progressive rock. In hindsight this was not such a shift as even in the early 70s the sessions, heavy with synthesizer and guitar solos, would also include other musical genres so were never simply about rock.

“I know that what you really want to hear are the records you bought a couple of years ago played over and over again, but there’s not a lot of point doing that, I think”

With Spotify, SoundCloud and You Tube online sources, my teenage sons were spoilt for choice in their discovery of different musical genres, young unsigned bands and also the means to explore the musical past.

Margrave of the Marshes, by John PeelAs a teenager in the 1970s, I was restricted in my musical exploration by the contents of my local public library’s record collection and the radio: Radio 2 and 3 for jazz and folk music and the sterling efforts of John Peel whose nightly Radio 1 show literally opened up a world of music, even if it did result in some former enthusiasms being subsequently “disowned” as an embarrassing reminder of my youth (Tubular Bells springs to mind…). Unrestricted by radio playlists and current pop charts his programmes were never predictable and I continue to enjoy a number of performers and musical genres first discovered there.

To illustrate this point, here are three very different musical discoveries from listening either to recordings or from one of the 4,400 broadcast sessions during the show’s 37 year existence (an alphabetical listing of all performers on Wikipedia runs to 58 A4 pages!):

Essential Martin Carthy


Martin Carthy –  an English traditional folk singer still producing and performing interesting music.

Hatful of Hollow, by The SmithsThe Smiths – whose first session forms a major part of their compilation album ‘Hatful of Hollow’, which was a useful antidote to the glossy synthesiser / drum machine chart material of the period.

Shumba, by Thomas Mapfumo

Thomas Mapfumo – a Zimbabwean musician whose hypnotic melodies continue to hold my attention.


If you wish to find out more about John Peel, read his autobiography Margrave of the Marshes (completed after his death by his widow). John Peel also wrote a large number of articles for such periodicals as The Listener and columns in national newspapers and the music press – many of these are gathered together in The Olivetti Chronicles. He seemed to take great delight – or was pressganged into – reviewing gigs by some very non-Peel performers such as Cliff Richard, Madonna and Wham!

After his death many obituaries and tribute articles appeared in national and regional newspapers. These can be read using Westminster Libraries 24/7 subscriptions to newspapers including The Times Digital Archive, Newsbank and also UK Press Online. The Times database uses scanned pages from the original newspaper. However for the issue containing his obituary and tributes (27 October 2004) there was an original printing fault making the first column difficult to read. Use Newsbank as an alternative source for these original Times articles.

John Peel has also appeared as a recent biographical entry in the The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, another 24/7 subscription available to Westminster library members.


Come on in, the door’s open

Access to Research‘Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications’. There’s a snazzy title for a document that I’m sure all of you have pored over. Or maybe you know it better as the Finch Report. Or maybe you don’t know it at all?

To be honest, it doesn’t matter – all any of us need to know is that it’s a Jolly Good Thing because it recommended that publicly funded research should be available to the people who paid for it: the public. Us, in fact. So Proquest (who some of you may know as the publishers of Ancestry, the fantastic online genealogical resource) were signed up to provide the ‘Access to Research’ front-end, which is about as user-friendly as it’s possible to be, and various publishers were brought on board. The current “offer” is impressive – 8,000 journals, many with long back files, containing 4 million freely-available articles. And these are from top academic publishers, 17 of them and counting, including big names like Oxford University Press and Wiley.

The range of subjects is extraordinary – some of the topics are obscure (Journal of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, anyone?) but there is plenty of more mainstream stuff (Journal of popular film and television for example). The point is that if you need access to research, esoteric or otherwise, and don’t belong to an academic library or have an awful lot of money at your disposal, you now have it.

So how does it work? You simply visit your local library – access is available in Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham libraries, as well as many other participating library services across the UK. Log onto a library computer and, in Westminster, go to our Online Resources. The interface couldn’t be simpler. Just enter your search terms (as with Google, you can use inverted commas around the term if you want to search for an exact phrase,  so “joan crawford” will return 102 results and joan crawford 1494). You will be asked to accept the Terms and Conditions (don’t worry – you only have to do this once each session). Do have a look at them – the most important condition is that users can’t save documents electronically although they can print out one copy of each article.  Accept the T&Cs and then look at the results.

When you click on an article, it will open up in a new tab so your results list remains open. You can read most of the articles as HTML format (like a straightforward webpage) or as a PDF (probably better if you intend to print it out ).

You don’t have to do a keyword search – you can Browse All Journals, using a drop-down menu to choose a subject. Or if you choose Advanced Search you can search by Author and narrow down your results by date.

Don’t forget to return to the original search screen to make each new search. The search results pop up on the websites of the various publishers, but if you stay there and use their own search boxes, you may find that you reach areas which are not part of the scheme, and get asked to pay unnecessarily.

This is all material that has previously not been available to The Public, only to those attached to academic institutions. So we should certainly make the most of it. Happy researching!


The Lives of Others

It’s been 10 years since the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was born. For some of the geekier members of the reference staff, it’s really quite hard to imagine life without it.

The Oxford Dictionary of National BiographyYes, there was its predecessor, the plain old Dictionary of National Biography, but that was only available as an actual book (well, quite a lot of books), you had to walk across the room to look at them and frankly, the print was quite small.

Not so with the new improved Oxford Dictionary. There is a print copy – you can read it at Westminster Reference Library or Marylebone Information Service, and very splendid it is too, in 60 handsome volumes. But you can also read the entire work – all 59,221 biographies – in the comfort of your own home by visiting our Online Resources page and logging on with your Westminster Libraries card number.

The ODNB is a work in progress and will continue to be so until people stop having distinguished lives. Since 2004, 4300 new lives have been added – each year they add notable people who died three years before and also some earlier biographies. They also add fascinating essays on all manner of subjects such as The Great Fire of London (a chance to do a little research before ITV’s new drama on the subject is broadcast) and The Synthetic Society (frankly I have no idea what this is, but it sounds fun). Or indeed, for National Poetry Day you might like to find out about the Cavalier Poets, the Rhymers’ Club or the Spasmodic School of Poetry

You can search biographies by name but also browse by birth or death order – the earliest biography is Piltdown Man if you count hoaxes, and the Red Lady of Haviland (‘not a historical character but an incomplete prehistoric human skeleton’) if you’re looking for a real person. Piltdown Man isn’t the only person who has the distinction of appearing in the ODNB without actually existing – check out the entries for Merlin and Friar Tuck.

There are myriad other ways to search too, offering ways into biographies that would likely remain hidden in the hard copy – see our previous post on the subject. Whoever you choose to read about, the articles are well-written, interesting and well-researched. You can even download podcasts so you can learn on the go. Happy Anniversary, ODNB.


The wonders of the English language

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)Watching a programme on BBC4 about the indigenous Taino people of the Caribbean (Lost Kingdoms of Central America – The people who greeted Columbus – currently available to view on iPlayer) I was reminded again just how many languages contribute toward the English we know and use today. It seemed amazing that the word ‘canoe’ actually came from these islands so far away. They called theirs ‘canoas’.

Canoe is of course not the only ‘English’ word to originate in a far flung place. The language grows all the time as we communicate on a global scale. One of the best and most entertaining ways to begin looking into this is to consult the Oxford English Dictionary (log in with your library card), a place to discover all sorts of unusual words, look at their origins and expand our own vocabulary. In its online form it is continuously added to, consists of 600,000 words and states that it is: “Widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language”.

It would be impossible to carry all 20 of the physical volumes around with you and most of us would be hard pushed to find space in our homes, so it’s great to have online access with your library card. Go ahead – use it to find out what a word means (it’s thoroughly reliable), where it comes from or, if you wish, to find another with the same meaning (it has a great thesaurus)!


In pursuit of a crime writer: investigating Reginald Hill

Good Morning, Midnight by Reginald HillEven if you don’t recognise the name you may be familiar with the work of Reginald Hill whose Dalziel & Pascoe series of crime novels was televised by ITV.

Set in Yorkshire, the strength of both novels and TV series was the interplay between the two contrasting characters. As an avid reader of crime novels it has struck me that crime novelists usually either go with the ‘antisocial loner’ or create a partnership between two main characters. The setup of a lead character and sidekick worked for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – why change a winning formula?

Reginald Hill died fairly recently and I thought it would be interesting to find out more about the author using the library. My first step was to read the blurb printed in his novels. Westminster Libraries stock a large number of his books so this information was not hard to find. If you are searching the Westminster library catalogue, many entries include the heading ‘Author Notes’ beneath the item’s details. This contains a brief biographical outline.

The next step was to use Westminster Libraries 24/7 library resources to obtain further information. I consulted Who’s Who / Who Was Who and drew a blank (plenty of other Reginald Hills feature, but not this one). His absence was not due to the compilers’ aversion to crime and thriller writers. Anthony Price, a contemporary of Reginald Hill, has been listed for many years, and other crime writers such as Ian Rankin are also included. I can only conclude that Mr Hill did not wish to be included in this directory as potential subjects are approached by the editors and the entry is compiled from information received.

The other major 24/7 biographical resource used to check for deceased authors is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, but currently people have to have died before 31 December 2010 to be included – Reginald Hill died in 2012.

As my subject was an author the obvious resource to check within the 24/7 library is Contemporary Authors which includes dead and living authors. Author entries include not only a list of their published titles (these lists also helpfully includes any US alternative titles) but also includes any author pseudonyms and their titles. The main part of an entry is a discussion of the author’s work including citations of reviews and links to relevant websites relating to the author and their work.

Reginald Hill died on 12 January 2012. Several newspaper obituaries were published immediately after his death. These can be read using Newsbank or other online newspaper archives. Several references to the author and the Dalziel & Pascoe series can also be found using Newsbank. Note however that many of the search hits refer to the TV listings of the Dalziel & Pascoe series rather than articles about the author and his books. One interesting article, found in the Guardian & Observer Archive was a discussion of television adaptations of crime novels and their authors’ feelings about them. Reginald Hill hated the ITV pilot episode which starred the comedians Hale and Pace. [Observer 16 April 2000. Tina Ogle – “Even the Gumshoes”]. Later the BBC successfully re-launched the Dalziel & Pascoe series and cast Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan in the title roles.

Magnifying glassThis brief investigation of one crime author gave me plenty of leads to follow, and the combination of hard copy evidence and online resources can help you to build up a profile of an individual too, whether you’re a detective, a fan, or both.


“I’m sure they were a lot more sensible in the olden days!”

A chance conversation about how we seem to be taking up more extreme sports, sparked by news of people BASE jumping from Canary Wharf, made me jokingly say that perhaps someone should try the age old one of tightrope walking across the Niagara Falls. This led me to wonder – who was the first to do this?

Off I went to begin my search, of course, via a search engine. As I read into the subject I found it and the first person to do it (in 1859) more and more interesting. Although born in France and with this major exploit being played out between Canada and America, Jean Francois Gravelet (renamed and known forever more as Blondin) had a lot to do with my own local area (Ealing) and indeed Westminster.


Of all the sources it was the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card) which contained the best article. Reading around this, I found it fascinating to see what else was going on 150 years ago (I browsed through articles in the Illustrated London News and other newspapers from the time about copycats such as the Female Blondin). I had always thought of extreme sports and insane stunts as a modern craze. However, it would seem that the dangers of what people get up to these days would pale into insignificance when compared to what went on in the 19th century.

Indeed, it is Monsieur Blondin’s antics over the Falls which really highlight this. He completed this challenge in 1859 and after that seemed to want to add a bit more excitement… more people (such as his daughter!), different venues (eg: Crystal Palace) and adding a bit more to his tightrope tricks.

Blondin amazingly kept working into his seventies living in what is now Westminster and Ealing (where he now has two streets and a house named after him). Indeed, having passed away due to ill health in 1897 he is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.

If you are interested in finding out more then…

  • Perhaps try to find him listed in the Censuses and other records from the time (have a look in Ancestry when you visit one of the Triborough Libraries).
  • Find articles and pictures from the 19th Century in The Times, The Illustrated London News, The Guardian or the Observer – or more recent ones about the extreme sports we get up to now:

Other articles:

All sparked from a chance conversation and a curious mind!