The Independent London Newspaper
23rd April 2019

Leading academic Dr Frances Wood retires with warning: 'British Library should forget about duvets in its gift shop – and get back to research'

    Frances Wood

    Dr Frances Wood: 'When I first went into the library it was still very much a ‘library serving readers and academics’'

    Published: 6 June, 2013

    ONE of the British Library’s most senior and long-serving academics has claimed the national institution is “losing its way” by gagging staff and prioritising commercial projects over re search and readers.

    Dr Frances Wood has retired from the prestigious position of curator of Chinese collections at the Euston Road library, the second largest in the world, where she had spent nearly 40 years. 

    The historian, who studied at Peking University after the Cultural Revolution and has published seven books, was instrumental in opening up access to thousands of books and manuscripts to the Chinese for the first time, in the pre-internet 1980s.

    The 65-year-old’s “biggest achievement” was her role in the International Dunhuang Project, which digitised 130,000 items from the 4th-11th century Silk Road, making them available in more than a dozen countries.

    But the academic told the New Journal that the library is now failing when it comes to “proper research” and “increasing public access to material” by focusing instead on turning things into “duvet covers” in its gift shop and creating “committee after committee” leading to “far too much talk and not enough action”.

    She cites a British Library project with Google as an example of the organisation being “shortsighted” and “failing to communicate” by digitising 250,000 books without ensuring there was a platform in the library on which users could read them. 

    “You have to go outside the library and go on Google. It is ridiculous really that no one thought about that,” she said. 

    The Cambridge University graduate joined the library in 1977 as a temporary junior curator, following a spell at the School of African and Oriental Studies and a year studying in China in 1975.

    Dr Wood, who lives in Archway, revealed that until she officially retired on Friday she was prevented from criticising the organisation. 

    “There is now an atmosphere where you are not allowed to say anything critical to anyone outside,” she said. “If you say anything you get notes in your file and hauled over the coals.  You are not allowed to tell the truth. Everything has to be massaged or concealed and I think that is a terrible way. That was not the case in the past. I think it is losing its way.”

    She called on the library’s new chief executive, Roly Keating, the former director of archive content at the BBC, to “turn things around”.

    “If he can get through the clouds of committees that fight with each other instead of carrying out the work that would be good,” she said. 

    “We should get back to doing proper research.”

    Dr Wood continued: “I have had a very lucky career because when I first went into the library it was still very much a ‘library serving readers and academics’. There is much less concentration on readers and books and it is much more commercial now. That is not to say I am not into modern trends. But my ideas would be very much based on the collections and how we can open them up to the public and theirs how we can make duvet covers out of pictures of things. It shouldn’t be that way.” 

    Her co-curator, Graham Hutt, has also announced that he is to retire in August.

    Caroline Brazier, Director of Collections at the British Library, said: “The British Library’s partnership with Google to digitise 250,000 historic books is currently underway – once it is complete, access to the digitised books will be freely available both via Google and via the British Library’s website at I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Frances for her contribution over many years to the British Library’s Chinese section, during which time her world-renowned expertise made an invaluable contribution to the development and interpretation of the Library’s Chinese collections.”



    Marco Polo - myth or reality

    I viewed Dr Frances Wood's suspicions about the reality of Marco Polo being a 14th century traveler to China on a Smithsonian/National Geographic special documentary. I visited Yangzhou last August and found a larger than life-size statue of Polo on a horse, and a plaque explaining that Polo served several years thee as a city-wide administrator of Yangzhou. Failing to find proof of Polo's travels in the British Museum's collection of Chinese books may only prove the collection to be incomplete. The place to find proof and accounts of Polo may be China, not the UK!
    John Texter, Eastern Michigan University

    Marco Polo

    Dear John,

    A (modern) bronze statue in China is nothing else than a tourist-orientated item. Do you think that it proves that Marco Polo did visit China and that a dedicated researcher like Wood would have not found that?
    There are many problems with a foreigner's claim to being administrator of a Chinese city. I believe that Wood lived in China for a while so she was probably well located to search Chinese sources for evidence of Marco Polo's passage in China.
    Of course this topic is a very difficult one to solve, as it is with other early travel accounts. I am ready to hear your (other) arguments in favour of Marco Polo's visit to China.
    Josepha Richard
    University of Sheffield

    An immensely talented woman

    Her China's First Emperor is leagues ahead of other contemporary works on the foundation of China and the first emperor - 95% of which accept without question the revisionist propaganda of the Han's Sima Qian. She is thorough, cautious and makes her assertions only when she is convinced the evidence is clear. These are admirable traits and I commend her.

    The Library has had a great treasure under its roof and will miss her. My work - which parallels her's but which delves more deeply into the means by which the empire came into being - is here.

    British Library - Dr Woods' comments

    Well done Frances for speaking out - too many institutions these days have lost sight of their main purpose and focus and instead of doing a proper job constantly allow bureaucracy and hot air to get out of control. The viability and sustainability of the library are important, including some commercial input, but the Library must fulfill its main purpose of maintaining, developing and giving access to a world-class repository of culture and history. I hope the CEO takes a robust look at the views of loyal staff like Frances.

    Dr Frances Wood has retired

    Dr Frances Wood has retired from the celebrated position of custodian of Chinese collections at the Euston Road library, the second largest within the world, wherever she had spent nearly forty years

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