In this interview we talk to Joseph who has been doing an apprenticeship at the British Library. He shares his experience of working for a large cultural organisation and the types of activities he has undertaken as an apprentice.
Why did you want to do an apprenticeship at the British Library?
I have had a strong interest in history ever since I was a child and have, for many years, enjoyed visiting with my family, museums and other sites of cultural and historical significance in London and around the UK. I knew I wanted to work in a history-related job role one day, however I wasn’t sure what role I might be able to work in.
From the age of 16, I started volunteering in various archives and museums in West and Central London in my spare time, helping to catalogue collection items and research / set up local museum exhibitions alongside other young people. In September 2020, after finishing Sixth Form, I started on a supported internship scheme with Hillingdon Council based at Hillingdon Civic Centre in Uxbridge, North-West London.
Whilst there, I was given the opportunity to conduct research into the history of the Hillingdon borough, so that I could come up with relevant suggestions for new street / facility names in the various borough wards. I also did a placement at a nearby local museum, the Battle of Britain Bunker, where I helped to catalogue the museum’s book collection.
By the summer of 2021 however, my internship was due to end, so I started looking for apprenticeship opportunities in various museums across London. In July, I found out about an apprenticeship in the British Library’s Learning Team which included working with the Access and Outreach team. As an autistic person and frequent museum visitor, I felt that I could make a strong contribution to the role. I therefore decided to apply for it, as I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to gain some valuable practical experience and increase my knowledge of the cultural heritage sector. After an involved application process, I was successful in getting onto the apprenticeship and started at the Library in September 2021.
How did you find out about the opportunity?
In the summer of 2021, I regularly checked the ‘Find an Apprenticeship’ service on the UK Government website for any museum / library apprenticeships in London. A number of apprenticeship vacancies came up at the British Library’s St Pancras site. I thought the Learning Team apprenticeship was the one most suited to my interests.
How long is the placement?
13 months. From September 2021 to October 2022.
What are you doing as part of your apprenticeship?
My apprenticeship involves working with the different sub-teams of the wider Learning Team and assisting them with their programmes. The Learning Team has five different programmes / teams: Access & Outreach, Adult Learning, Digital, Family, and Schools. I support staff members from each of the five teams, in particular, the Access & Outreach and Adult Learning programmes, as they have less staff in their teams.
The first four months of my apprenticeship involved me supporting the Access & Outreach manager with her programme. The Access & Outreach programme is aimed at members of the public with a variety of additional needs such as visitors with autism, visitors who are blind or partially sighted, visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing or visitors who speak English as a second language. I have had the opportunity to shadow and assist with Relaxed Early Openings, Audio-Descriptive and British Sign Language Library tours and art workshops based on current Library exhibitions. My duties also involved responding to general public enquires in the Outreach team inbox and reorganising the Access & Outreach resource cupboard.
Since the end of January, I have moved over to the Adult Learning programme, which is the main programme I will be supporting until my apprenticeship ends in October. The Adult Learning programme is aimed at providing adult Library users with courses on a variety of social, historical and political topics. These courses take place both online via Zoom and onsite at the Library’s Learning Centre. My duties include responding to queries in the Adult Learning inbox as well as preparing resources for and shadowing the onsite Adult Learning courses.
Lastly, part of my apprenticeship involves completing a Level 2 Customer Service Qualification with an external training provider. The qualification involves me researching the British Library as an organisation and completing worksheets about how I interact with customers in my role. I have monthly sessions with my tutor who explains and sets me new tasks. I usually set aside Fridays as my Study Day to work on my customer service qualification.
What departments are you working in?
Whilst my apprenticeship takes place with the British Library’s Learning Team, I have also had the opportunity to shadow the Library’s customer service staff on the main front desk and exhibition entrances, which has enabled me to see first-hand the type of requests that Library visitors tend to ask. Additionally, I have attended online training course sessions hosted by the different departments and teams from the two British Library sites at St Pancras and Boston Spa, in Yorkshire (e.g. the Culture Team, the Curatorial Team, the Conservation Department and the Remote Services Team). These training courses have allowed me to gain a greater understanding of the role these departments and teams play at the two British Library sites. Lastly, I am planning to spend some time shadowing in the Library’s basements where the majority of its collection items are stored, to find out more about how the different items have been categorised, and learn how the basement team access items requested by Library users.
What have you been enjoying?
I have really enjoyed finding out about and getting involved with the different events, courses and workshops run by the Learning Team. I have particularly enjoyed shadowing Access tours of the Library and supporting participants during creative art workshops. I have also had a great time working with the Learning Team staff in general as everyone within the department has been very friendly and supportive. Interacting with the other Library apprentices has been great as well, as I enjoy sharing my experiences at the Library with other young people. Overall, having the chance as a young person to work at one of the UK’s most important institutions with such a kind and dedicated team has been an invaluable experience for me.
Has the British Library made any adjustments to support you?
Yes, the Library’s Learning Team have been great at supporting me when I have needed a helping hand with things. I tend to take a bit of time to fully process more complicated tasks and often like to clarify certain things before starting a task, so I can complete it to the best of my ability. My managers have been happy to answer any questions I have about the tasks they have set me, even during their non-working days. The Learning Team have also been supportive when I have requested to work different hours when offering to help out with various Library events (e.g. agreeing for me to work from 12:00 – 18:00 when I have offered to help out with evening Library events).
Is there anything you have found more challenging?
Whilst I usually do not have any issues when asking for clarification or an extra helping hand with my work tasks, due to my autism and introverted nature, I do sometimes struggle with making small talk or having casual conversations with my Learning Team colleagues. However, I am gradually improving my social skills as I get to know my work colleagues better.
What have you learnt about the British Library? Is there anything that has surprised you?
I have learnt that there is a lot more to the British Library than meets the eye! Despite having a lifelong interest in history and museums, I rarely visited the Library as a child since it wasn’t an obvious place to visit, compared to the British Museum or the South Kensington Museums. I was also under the impression that the Library was exclusively aimed at academics and researchers. Familiarising myself with the different Learning Team programmes showed me how the British Library is trying reach a variety of audiences that might not normally be associated with using its facilities. Before starting my apprenticeship, I also didn’t understand the important role that the British Library plays across the UK. I was astounded to find out that the Library has over 170 million items in its collection and every time a book or magazine is published in the UK, a copy of it is sent to the Library so that members of the public can access it.
What do you want to do after the apprenticeship is over?
I’m honestly not sure at this point in time. Whilst I would really like to stay on at the British Library in a permanent job role, this would most likely be in another department and would depend on the type of internal vacancies available in the summer and autumn of this year. If I was unable to find a job at the Library itself, I would try to search for cultural-heritage related vacancies in other museums / libraries in London. I hope that the experience I gain working at the British Library will assist me when applying for these external vacancies.
You can find out more about the British Library apprenticeships here –
You can find out more about the British Library’s access events here – https://www.bl.uk/events?audience=accessible%20events