EKN Grant 2020: National Libraries Now Conference 2021

Main grant recipient
Lucy Rowland, Curator, Oceania Collections, British Library
Mercedes Aguirre, Lead Curator, America Collections, British Library

Other collaborators
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator, Germanic Collections, British Library
Chantelle Richardson, Special Collections Librarian, National Library of Jamaica
Wouter Bracke, Head of Maps and Plans, Koninklijke Bibliotheek van Belgie/ Bibliotheque royale de Belgique

Date of the activity
16th and 17th September 2021


Aims and Objectives
The National Libraries Now Conference 2021 was a digital conference held over two days on 16th and 17th September 2021. The conference aimed to provide an opportunity for staff working at collection level in National and Legal Deposit libraries to meet their international counterparts and discuss the complex and specific challenges these professionals face in building and interpreting national collections. In this way, the National Libraries Now conference aimed to fill a gap, as there was a need for an international forum for curatorial and collections staff working in National Libraries.

We had three main objectives for the event: to explore the issues relevant to national libraries now, to encourage discussion among professionals from different international institutions, and to be inclusive and accessible.


The conference took place over two days in September 2021, and was delivered online due to travel constraints connected to the Covid pandemic. It was organised by curators and librarians working at the British Library, the National Library of Jamaica, and the Koninklijke Bibliotheek van België/ Bibliothèque royale de Belgique.
The conference aimed to be multinational and inclusive, and the organisers were aware that many or most participants would speak English as a second language. To give participants enough time to listen to all talks at their own pace, the conference involved pre-recorded presentations, available to view on YouTube fourteen days prior to the event, and live Q&A panels on the days themselves, held via ZoomWebinar. The conference also featured six interventions, or invited talks, occurring at intervals throughout the two days, responding to the question “What is a National Library?”. Intervention speakers included:

• Khairani Barokka, Minang-Javanese writer, poet and artist (Jakarta/London)
• Nathan “Mudyi” Sentence, Wiradjuri librarian and museum educator (Australia)
• Gish Amit, writer and educator (Israel)
• D-M Withers, scholar of feminist publishing and history (UK)
• Alberto Manguel, writer, translator and critic (Argentina/Canada)
• Sam van Schaik, Head of Endangered Archives Programme (UK)


NLN2021 covered a wide range of panel topics addressing current issues and ongoing challenges in National Libraries. Panel discussions included: Collecting National Heritage; Future Libraries; Multi-lingual Collections; Understanding and Countering Bias; Co-operation between Libraries; Collections Research and Digital Humanities; Pivoting in the Pandemic. The conference had an international organising team and was able to attract an impressive number of international participants. We offered multiple ways to participate – from recorded presentations to written blog posts – to encourage colleagues working on different languages and time zones, and with different degrees of conference experience, to contribute to the discussion.

We had presenters from more than 30 countries and spanning six continents. We posted 60 video presentations, and organised 19 live panel discussions. More than 700 attendees from across the world registered for the conference.

Quotes from participants

We circulated an anonymous survey at the end of the conference, with the aim of gathering feedback about the event. Quotes from the survey participants are below (please note the survey was anonymous).

“We need many more such NLN events to happen but at low cost so knowledge sharing can happen often.”
Conference attendee, Help Shape the Future of National Libraries Now, October 2021

“It would be great to see this forum develop and provide opportunities for international, cross-organisational knowledge exchange such as visiting fellowships, internships, [and] secondments”
Conference attendee, Help Shape the Future of National Libraries Now, October 2021


“Intervention speakers might not be completely instead of keynote speakers, but they were so wonderful!”
Conference attendee, Help Shape the Future of National Libraries Now, October 2021

“Having the pre-recorded presentations meant being able to view them at a time that suited me and helped me feel part of a special community.”
Conference attendee, Help Shape the Future of National Libraries Now, October 2021