Managing Editor, IFSEC Insider

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James Moore is the Managing Editor of IFSEC Insider, the leading online publication for security and fire news in the industry. James writes, commissions, edits and produces content for IFSEC Insider, including articles, breaking news stories and exclusive industry reports. He liaises and speaks with leading industry figures, vendors and associations to ensure security and fire professionals remain abreast of all the latest developments in the sector.
January 25, 2023


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IFSEC Interviews

Protecting the British Library – In conversation with Head of Security, Riyaz Somani

Based between the major transport hubs of London Euston and London St Pancras, the British Library gives access to the world’s most comprehensive research collection. With over 170 million items (and counting) from every age of written civilisation, artefacts, books, scrolls and newspaper archives are all housed in a building that is open to the public seven days-a-week. Not to mention the regular exhibitions it holds, featuring precious artefacts from around the globe.

Quite the responsibility to protect all this, then. It’s a job that Riyaz Somani, Head of Security, is fiercely passionate about, and one that requires an extensive commitment to managing high level security processes, all while keeping public traffic flowing through freely. Here, Riyaz – who was also recently appointed Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and Welfare Director at IPSA – talks to us about the challenges his role brings, as well as his passion for security, which started in 2008 on the front line in London.

James Moore (JM): Hi Riyaz, thanks for joining us. To start with, do you want to give us a brief overview of your background in the sector and how you got to where you are today, as Head of Security at the British Library?

Riyaz Somani, Head of Security at the British Library and EDI&W Director at IPSA

Riyaz Somani (RS): Of course, James. I moved to the UK in 2008 from India. One of my friends in the industry had arranged an interview for me and I got the job fairly soon. I started my security career in the UK with Knightsbridge Guarding Ltd working in corporate security as an officer.

It was quite a start, having been assigned to the Lehman Brothers – who three months after I began went bankrupt during the 08-banking crisis. It wasn’t easy, as I spoke very little English at that point, but fortunately had a very good team around me and excellent training opportunities. It was a very useful experience in the corporate world – providing high levels of customer service while maintaining constant vigilance was a day-to-day expectation.

After a couple of years spending time in control rooms for the same supplier, I moved jobs to the 2012 Olympics project in London, where I was based in the control room. I worked through the construction phase then supported the protection of all the publicly accessible domains such as the walkways, restaurants, parks and other common areas during the games and then was managing the first half of the legacy projects before I was made redundant.

I then made my first move into protecting arts and culture sites, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Having been an art student, I rediscovered my love for the arts, and have stayed in this field ever since, having achieved regular promotions and then moved to Head of Security for the Imperial War Museum four years later.

Finally, I made my move to Head of Security at the British Library in May 2022, so that brings us up to date!

JM: Lots of experience then in different environments. Thinking about the Olympics, what kind of challenges did that role throw up?

RS: Yes, the Olympics’ role was certainly a challenge in protecting all the public areas. Obviously, the solution required a lot of collaboration, and it was a real example of the public and private sectors coming together and proving they can work with synergy.

My primary role was in the control room and managing incidents from there, with dedicated security teams on the ground managing search lanes and checking tickets. We also had support from the police and the army – ultimately it was a real team effort to keep such a huge event safe, which anyone could bid for tickets for.

JM: You mentioned you already had an interest in art and culture from your degree – does this interest play a role in your work since moving toward protecting museums and the Library?

RS: I think it does help, yes – there’s a genuine sense of pride that you are left in charge of securing national collections. It’s certainly a job that keeps you on your toes and engaged. The library is a public building that sees millions of visitors a year using the facilities in different ways.

I’ve been in the business of securing collections or galleries for eight years now and I still feel as passionate about it as I did when I first joined.

JM: How do you balance the use of technology and personnel in securing the British Library and its assets?

RS: It’s a fine balance between using technology and manpower – you don’t want to rely too much on one or the other. Technology can’t solve all your problems, but neither can manpower.

I’ve obviously not been here too long, but the first thing I did was that I conducted an assessment of the current infrastructure, which we have already started working on strengthening.

But we’re also looking to maximise the use of our technology that is already in place. For example, at the moment, many of our reading rooms have got a high density of video surveillance cameras. A lot of the library collections are digitised as you’d expect, and we’re not like a council library where assets can be taken off the premises, so we have to use CCTV to monitor the majority of the readers.


Entrance of the British Library (Credit: Ianni Dimitrov/AlamyStock)

“Exhibitions in particular are interesting, as we’re often bringing high value items on loan from other institutions around the world. These are rare items in some cases, potentially worth hundreds of millions of pounds, which can only be insured by the Government indemnity scheme under the Art Council. For that to be the case, we have to meet strict risk assessment processes… It has to be considered that we’re often managing the security of that object or item from the point it leaves the other institution’s door to the point that it’s installed in the showcase in the Library, and then back again.”

More than just security though, our cameras have basic analytics software in them, which gives us stronger data to analyse and come up with better, more efficient solutions. This isn’t just helping our security processes, but also other departments such as the temporary exhibition team or retail environment.

With so much of our collection now digitised and internet connected, one of the key challenges is the integrity of the network. While cyber doesn’t fall directly under my remit, one of the things we’re trying to do is work closely with the cyber and IT teams. This also enhances my output so I can understand the technology better – even if our network is really secure, it’s no good having a poorly managed physical access system, where intruders could simply bypass all of our protections by inserting a corrupt USB into a computer manually.

JM: Are there specific challenges to securing the British Library?

RS: The public environment means it’s always a challenge, right? Any publicly accessible building will have several different environments to consider – for example, the retail environment is different from the challenges of protecting special events that the Library puts on.

We also have to consider safeguarding, as a lot of children visit the Library, as well as managing vulnerable adults. This brings in new levels of risk management and it’s something that is very different to my early experiences in the corporate sector, where you usually know who is coming into and out of the building.

Of course, there are traditional threats, too. Counter terrorism, vandalism, and theft in particular are common considerations we have to build into our risk planning. The challenge is always ensuring the solutions we implement mitigate as much of the risk as possible, without becoming intrusive and a barrier to entry for visitors.

As we rely on Government funding and with the economic situation is as it is, we try to focus on the ‘softer’ side of security and manage threats that way. We’ve invested in training for all of the staff, enhanced management checks and support other business areas with our solutions such as the operations delivery team with data from our cameras.

JM: You mentioned exhibitions, relating to showcases of rare, high value items. What kind of security processes or considerations are required in these events?

RS: Exhibitions in particular are interesting, as we’re often bringing high value items on loan from other institutions around the world. These are rare items in some cases, potentially worth hundreds of millions of pounds, which can only be insured by the Government indemnity scheme under the Art Council.


The Library is accessible to the public seven days a week, which has to be factored in when deciding on security solutions (Credit: B O’Kane/AlamyStock)

For that to be the case, we have to meet strict risk assessment processes. While there are of course well-established processes already in the industry, it’s always improving and evolving to guard against new threats. It has to be considered that we’re often managing the security of that object or item from the point it leaves the other institution’s door to the point that it’s installed in the showcase in the Library, and then back again. There are a lot of people and teams monitoring the process throughout.

Many of the objects are very old, so require additional requirements which have to be managed in transit. Some books and objects we’ve had on the show date back to 2000 BC, so there are environmental and conservation processes to build in to the process.

Anything that goes abroad on flights also requires us to meet the Civil Aviation Authority guidelines so that when the package arrives at the airport, it doesn’t go through intrusive security checks. The procedures have to be really tight to ensure they’re trusted by other government organisations and the authorities.

Ultimately, there’s a lot of work that goes into it. There are more responsibilities in the security functions, but it’s fascinating and that’s what I love about this job. No day is the same!

JM: Going back a little, what was it like being on the frontline in a country that you had just moved to and spoke very little of the language of? And what did you learn from that experience?

RS: The first thing to say is that a large proportion of the London ground staff teams don’t have English as their first language – so this experience isn’t unusual. English is actually my fifth language! It’s tough when you first start, as you also don’t know the environment and your surroundings and that puts a lot of pressure on security officers on the front line.

What I learned though was that customer service is integral when approaching security, especially in public facing roles. There are always opportunities to go above and beyond. Take ownership of everything that you do and be consistent with the delivery and approach – no matter how small the task.

I strongly believe that security can enhance the visitor experience based on how they approach the customers. If you’re managing large events or a public art gallery or library, there are hundreds of opportunities, for instance. You may not know the answer to every question, but something as simple as pointing towards those that will know the answer will make a difference in the public’s response to security. Go that extra mile, it genuinely makes a difference.

JM: Any other advice for others from your experiences?

RS: Trying to think about solutions ‘outside of the box’ is a good way to approach a career in security – at least it’s something that’s worked for me. If you or your team is facing a problem, don’t be hesitant to break the norm – just because something has always been done one way doesn’t mean it’s the best solution. Be brave, try new things.

I’d also add that away from the day-to-day, the best thing you can do is find yourself a mentor. It took me years to realise it, but once I did, it really propelled my career and can help guide your journey.


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