SYP Scotland Keynote Speaker Blog: Amina Shah

Updated: Apr 5

Amina Shah is the Chief of the National Library of Scotland, and National Librarian: she is also the first woman, and the first person of mixed race, to hold these roles. In her keynote speech at the in-person day of the SYP Scotland Conference, Amina’s message was one of progress and action. Amina also exhorted the audience to consider the gaps and silences in many national library collections: “silences are being created by us not telling stories equally.”

The keynote address began with an overview of Amina’s rich and varied life experience, acting as a career trajectory up to the point of becoming Chief of the National Library in October 2021. As Amina discussed, “part of our role in the National Library is to preserve the memory of the nation.” The National Library has thirty million items, and receives around seven thousand items weekly. Amina addressed the difficulty of collating and archiving publications in the modern age, referencing ‘zines and blogs as online media content, and the role of the Library in being inclusive, and shaping a publishing repository for the future which accurately represents the publishing landscape.

Amina’s mother encouraged her love of libraries: having visited them from a young age, Amina noted the importance of libraries as a “shared resource of information”, as well as a recorded storage system for any items published in Scotland, including sound recordings. Amina had worked on one of the first digitisation projects during the early stages of her career in the mid-1990s, and had also worked in Dundee Library for fourteen years. Amina noted the importance of libraries as hubs for children, the unemployed and homeless, and newcomers to the country, as they offer a resource for information and internet access. Amina has also worked for Scottish Book Trust as Director of the Programme, and was the Assistant Director of the Library at the University of St Andrews. Amina praised the benefits of working across a number of sectors, giving the opportunity to see an overview of public to academic spheres, and culminating in her role as National Librarian.

Referring to a hidden history of women’s literature, and the silencing of collections by the outdated practice of assigning them a lower value in the National Library archives as a whole, Amina noted the importance of re-discovering these voices. The National Library is currently holding an exhibition titled ‘Petticoats and Pinnacles: Scotland’s Pioneering Mountain Women’, which has worked to promote women’s achievements in mountaineering. Amina stated that “the gatekeepers, the decision makers, matter”. The National Library had experienced a backlog of ephemera in the 1980s, which is only now being assessed. The stories of these lost pieces matter immensely, acting as a time capsule.

Amina’s speech also paid tribute to her mother, who had published a pamphlet in the 1970s, which provided an important resource for women to gain information about sexual health. This piece is part of the Library’s archives. This personal connection to the content of the archives demonstrates the importance of submitting all works to the National Library, to be collected within their archives, and are part of the Library’s vision and status as a Legal Deposit Library. As Amina noted, it may be difficult to provide a copy of published works with a smaller print run, but the collation of the archives is of importance. Amina also pointed out that “if your voice isn’t there, if the story isn’t there, it won’t be researched in the future.”

Amina delivered a rousing and intriguing keynote speech, including encouragement for young people to continue standing up for their values, and is predicting an optimistic future for the publishing industry.

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