Dr Adam J Smith
Tuesday 7th August
Welcome to the British Library
After a far more substantial breakfast than I can usually tolerate at that time in the morning, I struck out from my Travelodge and walked a few minutes down Euston Road to our scene for today: the British Library.
As I mentioned yesterday, this is the first time I’ve had cause to use the BL for research, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was a complete surprise to me, then, to discover that there would be a very long queue at the door at 9.30am, snaking almost entirely out of the court yard.
I imagine that this was likely due to the need to search everyone’s bags, and I’m pleased to report that security was very efficient and I was in the door in less than ten minutes.
Since this was my first time, I began by making my way over to Reader Registration. The room was on the first floor, and once again, it was a well-oiled machine. I had a very smooth and actually quite pleasant experience, although judging by the difficulty some others were having (and the apparent gratitude of the person who handled my application) I strongly suspect it makes all the difference if you can bring the appropriate evidence of identity and, even better, Pre-Register before arrival.
After years of imagining that registering to be a Reader at the BL would be a really complicated ordeal, I was amazed by how easy a process it actually is. You just need to enter some very basic information on their website and then make sure you bring with you two documents showing your address and one with your signature. I brought more documents than I needed and in the end they just used my driving licence and a bank card.
Whilst issuing the card, the Librarian you are dealing with will conduct a short interview in which they ask about what it is that you are researching and what it is you hope to use the library for. This is nothing to be nervous about, it is just so they can answer any questions you may have and advise you on which parts of the library you’ll need to use.
I had two questions, and can now share the following answers:
Q1. If I need to use items over multiple days, will I need to reverse them all over again?
Nope, just tell the librarian on the desk when you take the items back at the end of the day that you’ll need them again and they’ll put them aside for you.
Q2. Some of the rarer items that I’ve tried to request say that I need additional permission, how does that work?
Again, speak to the person on the desk in the relevant reading room and they will be able to advise on this. It can be really helpful to have a Letter of Introduction which quickly explains why you want to use these rarer materials (as is recommended on the website), so such a letter is very useful to have to hand.
You can’t take coats or bags into any of the Reading Rooms, so I was next directed to the Cloak Room. Pens obviously aren’t allowed so I went via a detour to the Gift Shop to buy a pencil. Something I didn’t realise until after I’d checked my bag into the Cloak Room, along with my phone charger and the cable for my laptop, is that you can still take stuff into the Reading Room, it just needs to go in a transparent bag that the library provides (they’re in trays opposite the Cloak Room – I walked straight passed them and didn’t realise until much later, when I was checking my bag back out again).
Whilst at the Cloak Room I nipped around the corner to use the facilities. I realise this is becoming an implausibly detailed account, but I just wanted to mention this because behind the Cloak Room, quite well hidden near the toilets, is an eighteenth-century printing press!
There is also a water fountain, which came in very useful given how hot it got later in the afternoon.
Now I had my Reader’s Card, I had a pencil, my bag was in the Cloak Room and I’d paid a visit to the eighteenth-century printing press, it was finally time to look at some old stuff!
If, like me, you work on eighteenth-century things, it is likely the items you request will be accessible from the ‘Rare Books and Music’ room on the first floor (unless you’re looking at handwritten eighteenth-century materials, in which case you’ll be in ‘Manuscripts’). Upon entering this surprisingly spacious reading room you first have to pass another security check: on your way in they will ask you to present your card, on your way out they may check to make sure you don’t have any library materials in your transparent bag.
I requested my items in advance using the online service (which you can use from the moment you pre-register). To do this, you just need to find whatever it is you’re looking for on the online catalogue, then underneath the entry you’ll see an ‘I Want This’ button. This gives you the option to order if for the same day (which means it’ll be ready for inspection in just 70 minutes) or to ‘Add to Basket’. If you click the latter it gives you the option to request it for a future date. You can view up to six items at a time. You can also keep track of what you’ve ordered with the ‘My Reading Room Requests’ tab.
The Reading Rooms work a little like Wetherspoons, in that you’ll need to know you table number before you order at the bar. Once you’ve found a spot, just take your card up to the desk and they’ll ask for your table number and issue the items. Then you can take them back to your table and work with them for as long as you need.
One of my items today was ‘Restricted’, which meant that I had to hand over my card to use it, and that I was only allowed to work with it in a specific area dedicated to restricted materials. It is also worth noting that you can’t photograph restricted material without permission.
At the end of the first day, I am very impressed by how accessible and easy to use the library has been (especially if you are able to plan your trip in advance)!
I’m back in my Travelodge now, getting ready for bed. I have some more items to look at in the Rare Books and Music room tomorrow, but before that I’ll be heading to the Newsroom to view microfilms of newspapers from late eighteenth-century Sheffield.
Now I’ve explained all of the house-keeping, I hope tomorrow to share some of my research findings and spotlight some of the more entertaining texts that have crossed my desk.