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Summer at the British Library: a researcher's chronicle

Lucian Hudson

In this article, Lucian J Hudson, Partner and Managing Director at Cornerstone Global Associates, reflects on his experience of using the British Library for his research, the main output of which was a substantial report for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on what makes for effective collaboration between government, business and civil society. The report, and his experience as a Director of Communications for the FCO, Defra and the Ministry of Justice, helped him to launch a successful career in consulting.

By whatever standard one judges a quality of a life - evolution of character, key relationships, service to others, personal and professional achievements, memorable experiences, Spurs' progress through the League - I can look back on my brief time as a researcher in the summer of 2008, and say that the British Library became for me not only a great British institution, but my lifelong companion in research and learning.

The world changed that summer, and so did I. The global financial crisis coincided with my four-month project to develop the thinking and practice of collaboration. In that period, collaboration went from being seen as a nice-to-have to essential in surviving a crisis. It is still difficult to imagine just how much what I researched and wrote had to be revised as external events unfolded. I was excited that the idea that I had chosen to research was coming alive in the US Presidential campaign, and in the actions of the British Prime Minister at that time, Gordon Brown, who became a catalyst for international co-ordination in the face of the financial crisis.

In July I had embarked on an assignment for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that was really close to my heart. It involved producing in less than four months a 282-page report (five chapters with notes, references and bibliography) on what makes for effective collaboration between government, business and civil society. As a practitioner, I had for a long time wanted to take time out to reflect on my passion for brokering and building alliances. This was a report for government, providing a commentary on management research on this topic, interviews with leaders, advisers and practitioners, and a few models and techniques that I developed in collaboration with professionals from different countries, sectors and disciplines. Dr Alan Murray, an expert in corporate social responsibility who is now at Leeds University Business School, and himself a frequent user of the British Library's services, called it a mini PhD. But it also felt like I was riding a tiger, one I had stupidly unleashed - because I am curious and like a challenge.

It was the first time I had ever researched, interviewed, consulted and written up anything on this scale. After eleven years having very able PAs to support me, I now had to organise myself. My effortlessly efficient FCO colleague, Alan Anstead, co-ordinated case examples. I spoke to more than 250 international contacts and 120 organisations, including 20 governments; took part in a week long negotiation course at Said Business School in Oxford; presented at Wilton Park and Lloyds Bank - and spent time with international companies and institutions in The Hague, Brussels and Geneva. When in London, one of two places where I was based was a government Minister's office that was vacant in August and September (Lord Digby Jones, our then Trade Minister, was batting for Britain overseas). The other was the British Library, where I had easy access to their vast collections.

I soon found out that the British Library is not only its books, journals and documents, but its expertise, its great people. The Library's specialists organise, retrieve, guide and advise on their collections of so much of our planet's intellectual heritage. They create the culture in which researchers strike a balance between dependence, interdependence and independence. Lead Curator Sally Halper was my eyes and ears in navigating this whole new scary universe. On some occasions I suffered from an addiction to British Library specialist advice. Sally helped me to identify key print and digital articles that I urgently needed to develop or support an argument. At most times, Sally helped me grow up as a researcher, and use the system for myself. But she was there, as was the Library, its technology, and its modern facilities. I grew increasingly independent before realising that my work was itself a contribution to other researchers.

I formed so many relationships with other colleagues who also had a need. We looked at one another with curiosity, bewilderment and envy (Why has he ordered that collection of books? What's the link? Oh, I like what she's got. He's getting through more searches than me). For a man specialising in collaboration, I discovered my dark side - the competitive urge, finding ways to push the system and get what I want, faster, on my terms, while looking studious, calm, and collected.

We all had our little routines, and I discovered the three most closely guarded secrets in the life of a researcher:

1. Researcher's ritual: Find a seat, unpack, check on the arrival of books that had been ordered, read, make notes, read more, cross-reference. Time for tea, surely? Those British Library cakes (sponge cake, so British!), so seductive. Yes, it is easier to think when one relaxes - so researchers convince themselves.

2. Researcher's shame and guilt: Skimming brilliant stuff that others have spent ages toiling over (yes, oh Lord, I skimmed A.K. Rice and Deming at times). The guilty version: spending too much time on a single text, because it is so interesting. (How can any political scientist or diplomat not read from cover to cover, Francois de Callieres' The practice of diplomacy ?).

3. Researcher's karma: One day, another researcher will skim my work - if I am lucky!

I grew as a person, spending so much more time inquiring rather than simply advocating, perceiving rather than just judging, feeling the connections, not only spotting them. I began to understand what Sherlock Holmes is really about: not just gripping stories but a comprehensive view of the world based on the deepest appreciation of evidence, a heightened awareness and insight, and an uncanny ability to spot and make connections. The spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional character inhabited me that summer.

Professor Gillian Stamp introduced me to the concept of suspending assumptions while trying to explain them to others, and said that this is one of the qualities that most emerged in my work. She devised this wonderful formula: 'To get into somebody else's shoes, it helps to take your own off first'. Representing the world to myself and to others, as well as representing myself to the world, was what I learnt most that summer at the British Library - skills which stand me in good stead as a consultant and adviser to government and business organisations.

My research helped me provide a framework and a set of tools and techniques to anchor my international consultancy. The context is always different, but the patterns are recognisable. Not surprisingly, it is seen as a valuable resource by many different governments, companies and NGOs because collaboration is increasingly seen as an idea whose time has come.

Further reading

Hudson, L. J. The enabling state: collaborating for success. London: FCO, 2009

Murray, A., Haynes, K. and Hudson, L. Collaborating to achieve corporate social responsibility? Possibilities and problems. Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal. 2011, forthcoming

You can read more articles by Lucian on the Cornerstone Global blog and from links to his work on Journalisted. He also contributed to the British Library's publication Driving UK Research: is copyright a help or a hindrance?


Collaborative Strategies Network

Cornerstone Global Associates

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