Using the British Library for the first time can be an intimidating experience, not least because it now resembles an overgrown coffee shop with people crammed into every nook and cranny. However, it’s an indispensable resource for researchers, and getting acquainted with its idiosyncrasies could pay doctoral dividends.
First you need to register for a reader’s pass. You can now pre-register on the website, thus enabling you to order items in advance of your visit. After completing the online form, you should take the required documentation to the registration desk within three months. You need to show them proofs of identity and address (examples are listed on the website) and also give them an indication of the material you intend to consult, by making a note of the relevant class marks from the integrated catalogue. They will also need to see your student ID and evidence of your research programme, eg an offer letter or introduction from your supervisor.
The British Library is understandably strict on what can be taken into the reading rooms. All coats and bags must be left in the lockers provided in the basement (you’ll need a £1 coin, but it’s returnable), and items you want to keep with you should be placed in one of the transparent bags provided. In the interests of book preservation, Readers can only use pencil (incredibly, some books contain sections underlined in pen). No food or drink is permitted either, not even water, although there are drinking fountains located outside each room. This might all sound a tad draconian, but it’s in everyone’s interests that the collection is kept clean and secure. On the bright side, the desks are lovely, with individual reading lights, powerpoints, wi-fi access and a very comfy chair.
YOUR FIRST VISIT
Once you’ve provided the documentation outlined above, you’ll be presented with your shiny reader’s pass. You need to show it when entering any of the reading rooms and it also acts as a photocopy charge card. If you haven’t already done so, you should create a login – this enables you to order items through the website and track progress.
If you log in before searching the integrated catalogue, you can easily request items in advance of your visit. You need to enter the date of your visit and the reading room you will be using (in some cases you won’t have a choice, such as with rare books or manuscripts). This is very handy, but annoyingly flawed. If on arrival the reading room is full, you will have to go to another and then wait an hour for your books to be transferred. Quite. In my experience, Humanities 1 is normally packed to the rafters, but Humanities 2 (just up the stairs) is relatively calm.
Under normal circumstances you should find a desk in the reading room and make a note of the number. Then present your card at the issue desk and they will hand you a lovely pile of goodies. If you order additional materials while you’re there, it normally takes 70 minutes and then an alert will appear in a panel at the back of your desk (yes, it’s very clever).
If you run out of time, you can ask for the materials to be reserved until the next day. When you’ve finished you have to allow the security guard to check your bag, just in case you’re trying to smuggle out Shakespeare’s First Folio.
The hopefully smooth process described above is based on the use of materials easily located in the Integrated Catalogue. Unfortunately, the sheer breath of material held by the BL means that not everything is catalogued. You might need to consult card indexes, ledgers, or ask other scholars working in the field. Locating some manuscripts is down to serendipity, but you will get a feel for some of the tips and tricks. There are specialist librarians available for consultation, and they really do know their stuff.
I would strongly urge anyone wanting to consult the collections to attend one of the British Library training days. There are a limited number of travel bursaries available, and they also throw in a free lunch. As they are organised by discipline, the training is focused and there’s a good opportunity for networking with other scholars in your field.
FOOD AND DRINK
If you’re planning a long study session, you might want to forage for food at various points. There is a cafe and restaurant at the BL, both of which are quite pricey, but the restaurant does serve particularly good food. They also provide free water, and salads and soups are good value. If you’re more organised than me and manage to take a packed lunch, there’s a common room for Readers on the top floor, complete with tables and a coffee machine. There is a vending machine up there, but it looks like a strange device for incarcerating naughty sandwiches, and they don’t look particularly appetising.
Once you’ve been to the British Library a couple of times, it all becomes second nature. Don’t be afraid to ask – that way you can be sure to get the most out of your visit and you’ll improve your research skills too.
Edit by Sarah R-H (27 June 2012) – Check out the post “I Tell You, ‘Tis Incredible to Believe” on Mike Stumpf’s ‘All is True’ blog for further helpful notes on using the British Library for your research.