A few weeks ago, late on a Friday afternoon, my colleagues and I were all cheering from our home workstations as our British Library Online Shop reopened. Following an 8-week closure, it was a great moment of achievement and positivity in what was, and still is, a really difficult time.

The Shop is a popular feature of the British Library building at St. Pancras, where we sell a wide range of products from stationery, books, and postcards, through to games, jewellery, and tech. Our Online Shop sells a curated selection of the products we have in-store. As is the case with most cultural venues, our shops create a valued income stream for the wider organisation, with every purchase helping to support the work the British Library does in preserving and providing access to the world’s most comprehensive research collection.

British Library Online Shop

We had a complete revamp of our Online Shop towards the end of 2019, where we moved from an in-house system to an externally hosted eCommerce platform (Shopify) in just nine weeks. If you attended the Successful eCommerce event that Cultural Enterprises held in July 2019 you will have heard more about this project from Maxine Hellenkamp (Buying and Merchandising Manager) and Hannah O’Connell (Project Manager). Our old system wasn’t set up with eCommerce as the focus and was part of a wider web project within the Library. On that system, we were incredibly limited in what we could do and had to rely on other under-resourced teams to do the simplest things like changing the colour of a link. We opted to move to the Shopify platform as it was very user friendly both from a customer and staff perspective, it integrated with our EPOS system and payment service provider, and it met all our criteria for accessibility, security, and reporting. Shopify are experts when it comes to eCommerce, so it was an easy decision to use a platform like this to bridge our gaps of knowledge.

We process and ship all online orders from the British Library sites, working with the same inventory for both online and in-store stock. So when the time came in March for the Library to close its’ doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this meant both our physical and online shops also had to cease trading. We kept a close eye on what our peers were doing and decided to keep our online shop live but just for browsing.

Reopening our Online Shop

Since that point, we have been doing all we can to reach the stage where we could safely re-open the Online Shop, so that we could provide customers with the opportunity to purchase the range of products we sell, and to start generating income for the British Library once again.

The elements we had to consider when working towards re-opening online were varied, but may chime with your own organisations queries and concerns. I’ll outline these below, and how we overcame or worked around the challenges.

Staff Access – With access to the buildings being very restricted, we worked with our Estates and Security colleagues to agree in advance for specific team members to have access. This was limited to one or two days each week, and on different days to avoid overlapping visits.

On-site Staff Safety – We considered travel to the British Library when discussing which members of the team would access the site, and were fortunate to have colleagues available who could walk in rather than use public transport. We also considered who was happy to go in without putting their own health at risk or impacting on any caring responsibilities.

Packaging – Our order packaging is normally undertaken by a different team, so we needed to ensure enough resources were available for the staff going on-site to do this part of the process. Before the Online Shop re-opened we were able to check what was available, and we have ordered the additional supplies needed. We also removed from online any items which may be particularly difficult to ship or package, bearing in mind limited staff time when on-site.

Shipping – The Shopify platform is easy to update with different shipping restrictions, so we were able to change this to UK only. The Library’s usual Royal Mail collection was unavailable, so we worked with our Post Room colleagues to take parcels to the local Post Office once a week. As the restrictions ease, and as our online sales pick up, we hope to be able to reinstate Royal Mail collections, and to expand the shipping regions gradually.

Stock – We were fortunate to be well-stocked on key lines when the lockdown started, and, due to minimal income at this time, we have been focussing on trying to sell through what we already have. We’ve placed some orders for our own publishing titles and a very limited amount of other lines, but it’s unlikely that we will resume to a full re-ordering capacity until late summer/early autumn. As a third of our business comes from book sales we have added more titles online, which is also ensuring space for new and relevant titles once we re-open fully. Because we haven’t been placing many orders, we can’t comment on how easy or difficult it’s has been to source stock – delivery times have been longer for those we’ve ordered from, but many suppliers we work with seem to have resumed service, with staff coming out of furlough, and are open for business again.

Reactivating Online Shop – In the run up to reactivating we reviewed our ranges online, such as creating a collection of ‘Home Activities’ including puzzles, games, and tech. We considered the audience that might be using our Online Shop at this time, and the products they may be looking for.

Communication – Once we had reactivated online shopping, we took a few days to test the waters before doing any promotion, both to ensure everything was working ok and so that we were not overwhelmed with orders. The following week we staggered our social media and email marketing, to slowly increase awareness. We have made sure to highlight that we’re keeping staff safe, and that there may be delays due to the safety measures we’ve put in place.


Since re-opening, the Online Shop takings have been up on the months leading up to our closure, with particularly strong sales of British Library Publishing titles. We’re actively adding more items online across various ranges, and are preparing to integrate our Print on Demand service into our Shopify platform with the help of King & McGaw. We hope to be able to expand our online services to our overseas customers once it is safe and practical for us to do so, but for now we are all still getting used to our new normal.

Charlie Wainwright
By Charlie Wainwright
Charlie has a background in art and design, and previously worked in the crafts and retail sector. Having joined the British Library Shop team in late 2017 as Online & Buying Assistant, Charlie is now a Buyer, focusing on gifts, homeware, and paper goods.
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