As the British Library posts its greatest literary treasures online, new research reveals that young people could be struggling to engage with the classics

Preface to the Present Edition of Oliver Twist, c. 1850 (c) Mark Charles Dickens, Head of the Dickens Family

  • The British Library has posted over 1000 of its greatest literary treasures online in a new website, Discovering Literature – including the manuscripts of Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Austen, Dickens and Wilde, the largest collection of childhood writings of the Brontë sisters, and other unique artefacts which shed new light on their life and works
  • Survey of more than 500 English teachers reveals that most think secondary school students ‘find it hard to identify’ with classic authors
  • 86% of English teachers say that classic literature risks being underappreciated by today’s students unless more is done to inspire them

Generations of readers first discovered their appetite for the classics of English literature when studying them at school. As the British Library posts some of its greatest literary treasures online, new research reveals that 82% of English teachers believe that today’s secondary school students ‘find it hard to identify’ with classic authors.

Beginning with the Romantic and Victorian periods, the British Library has posted handwritten manuscripts, diaries, letters and other materials belonging to iconic authors including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Oscar Wilde, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth alongside original documents from the time they lived in, such as newspaper clippings, adverts and photographs, intended to bring their world - and their literary works - to life in a new way. The research suggests that this is a resource English teachers will find useful; 92% of English teachers say that students would benefit from being taught using material that brings to life the historical, social and political contexts in which classic literary texts were written.

The new website, Discovering Literature, has been supported from its inception by Dr Naim Dangoor CBE and includes newly digitised collections from partner organisations across the UK as well as the British Library. This launch, focusing on Romantic and Victorian authors, marks just the start of the project – the British Library will continue to add to the resource until it covers English literature from Beowulf up to the present day.

Key highlights on the Discovering Literature website include:

A core aim of Discovering Literature is to get young people inspired by the UK’s literary heritage, at home and at school, and many of its selected texts support the UK curricula for GCSE, A Level and undergraduate teaching of English Literature.

To mark the launch, the British Library commissioned a survey with ComRes of over 500 teachers involved in teaching English at secondary school level, exploring how they think English literature is perceived by young people.

Key findings in the report reveal that there can be a feeling of disconnect between young people and some of the UK’s best known authors, with three quarters (76%) of teachers saying that their students find it hard to perceive the classic authors as ‘real people’. 82% of English teachers say that it is inspiring for students to experience original manuscripts and drafts, and so it is hoped that this resource, which gives instant access to hundreds of original items, will help teachers to engage young people with the classics of English literature.

Roger Walshe, Head of Public Engagement and Learning at the British Library, said:

“The launch of Discovering Literature enables lovers of literature to come face-to-face with some of our most treasured collections online anywhere in the world.

From a handwritten manuscript by Charles Dickens or Emily Brontë, to a lock of Shelley’s hair or a newspaper clipping from Dickensian London, at the British Library we know from our daily work with young people how contact with original materials can bring to life a novel or poem written centuries ago. The students of today make the readers of tomorrow and we want to inspire the next generation of readers with this fantastic digital offering.”

Bethan Marshall, Chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) said:

“As the research demonstrates, it can be challenging to get young people excited about texts that were written hundreds of years ago. However, showing students the 1809 dictionary of criminal slang with words that appear in Dickens's Oliver Twist or a contemporary letter from someone criticising Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as 'downright nonsense' make texts, which might seem remote to a 15 year old, suddenly become relevant.“

“Discovering Literature is a wonderful resource for anyone doing English, and anyone teaching or doing the new GCSEs should bookmark the site immediately.”

Dr Naim Dangoor CBE, who has supported the project, said:

“We are delighted to be associated with this initiative which widens the role of the British Library and invites the whole world in to sample the delights of the nation’s great literary heritage.”

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss said:

“Every child should have the chance to enjoy the best English authors and that’s why this government has put great literature back at the heart of school life. We want pupils to discover a love for literature they can carry with them for life.

“At GCSE students will study Shakespeare, 19th century novels and romantic poetry while at A level they will study whole texts from the 18th century, including a Shakespeare play, in even greater detail.

“Discovering Literature will support that new curriculum, helping to bring to life some of the greatest pieces of literature of our time such as Oliver Twist and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.”

Notes to Editors:

Methodology note: ComRes interviewed 520 English teachers online between 16th April and 2nd May 2014. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. The full data tables and findings can be viewed at www.comres.co.uk

You can visit Discovering Literature at www.bl.uk/discovering-literature

The British Library is grateful to the following organisations for their contribution to Discovering Literature: The Brontë Parsonage Museum, Charles Dickens Museum, Dove Cottage, Jane Austen’s House Museum, Keats House and Strawberry Hill House.

The project has also been generously supported by Dr Naim Dangoor CBE, the British Library Trust and the British Library Patrons. Further development of the project is being supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation and Evalyn Lee.

For more information contact:


The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.  



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