So what did you do in May?

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A coded letter awaiting deciphering? No, the volumes I managed to look at while at the British Library. I spent a few days at both the Bodleian (Oxford) and several Cambridge libraries, but most of my month was spent at the British Library. For those who’ve never been and might go, or who, like me, were only familiar with the old Manuscripts reading room when it was in the British Museum, I’ll let you check out their website for the basics. But here are a few tidbits on BL research mechanics that were reinforced for me over my 2.5 weeks there in the Manuscripts room. I always like to know as much in advance as possible, and so here’s what I wish I’d known on day 1, hour 1:

Getting In

  • Although there was a long line (~100 people) by the time the main library building opened at 9:30, very few of them ended up in Manuscripts Reading Room, so, at least for May 2012, there were plenty of seats in that room, though by afternoon it could occasionally get close to capacity. It seems that most of the people in line were using the free wifi – there were literally a couple hundred people in the various chairs using their laptops and talking on their cellphones in the main hall. Don’t bring a large bag (larger than airline carry-on size) because they’ll deny you entrance – I saw a group of 5-6 East Asians turned away the other day with their wheeled luggage. And please, if the two entrance guards don’t ask you to present your belongings for inspection, don’t wait but just keep walking! Line moves a lot faster that way.

Getting Set

  • There’s a rush downstairs (lower ground floor) for the lockers, though I never had a problem finding one in the morning, and I even managed to always get one on the top row. Requires £1 coin.

Getting a break

  • Good dining facilities on the upper ground and 1st level – a smaller cafe and then the larger restaurant, which will fulfill your (savoury) pie needs. You can usually dine very quickly if you’re on a short trip – or bring your own brown bag, which will require a quick trip to the lockers in the basement.
  • While you do so at your own risk, I left my laptop at my desk while I went for my 20 minute lunch break downstairs. Some people took theirs with them, others didn’t. Hopefully nobody downloaded all my notes for themselves while I was gone! There is CCTV in the reading room, but that wouldn’t be much consolation if you had your laptop stolen.
  • Decent bathrooms. Better than most of the dumpy hotels I stayed in, in fact. And some great graffiti.

Getting researching

  • The Manuscript room is relatively poorly lit, so consider what your eyes need, and you might want to even scope out which seats seem to have the best lighting (with the exception on seating below).
  • Ordering all items is computerized, a several-step process with a less-than-intuitive interface, and it requires a specific seat number (where they’re delivered to, with the exceptions below). Just about every item I requested took the ‘suggested’ 70 minutes, but you can consult the general status of your orders on the My Reading Room Requests webpage, although there is a time lag.
  • Cycling through the orders is a bit more difficult, however, because you can only order 4 volumes at a time. And, depending on some mysterious arcana, when you turn in one of the volumes you’ve finished (make sure to tell them you’re finished with it, or they might just hold it for you), even though they scan the ticket right in front of you, it might not free up one of those four slots (to order another volume) for minutes or, in several cases for me, even a half-an-hour or more. In one case they didn’t send it back, until I went an hour later to see why the slot hadn’t opened up. So when you add up the limit of four-orders-at-a-time plus the seventy minute delivery time for each volume (ordering four volumes all at once will still only require 70 minutes or so), plus whatever time is needed to go through the documents, you will rarely reach the maximum 10 orders per day that you are technically allowed. So plan accordingly.
  • Managing the rotation of your orders will help maximize the number of volumes you can consult. I was told you could order items for the next day after 5 PM, but that didn’t work for me the two times I tried it early on (I suppose you are supposed to just guess some seat number that you’ll be at the next day). This isn’t a huge problem as long as you try to hold at least one largish volume over for the next day, so you have something to look at for the first hour the next day while waiting for your other orders to be delivered. Or, if your hotel lied about it having wifi, you can catch up on surfing or email. Since you can only order four volumes at a time, you can only hold up to four over night, for up to three working days.
  • You can usually look at all four of your mss volumes at once, but some mss volumes are “select” (special somehow, e.g. illuminated) and require seating in a particular section of the room, while unbound papers need to be consulted in a large tray at yet a different set of desks. Both of these types of mss may only be consulted 1 volume at a time, though you can have your normal mss volumes waiting for you at your regular desk. Unfortunately it wasn’t clear to me how to tell if what you’ve ordered is special or unbound or normal until the light at your desk lights up to let you know you need to check at the pickup desk. In my three “select” volumes I could find no discernible reason why they were so special, but mine is not to wonder why. The My Reading Room Requests webpage will only generically say “Ready for Pickup,” which is what it also says if a normal volume is in the process of being delivered to you, but also, confusingly, what it says for a while after you’ve returned any volume, before it changes to “Dispatched to storage.” In other words, you may have to jump around from desk to desk, depending on what type of mss you’re consulting at the moment. You need to prioritize the select and unbound first and foremost when they arrive, since they cannot be left unattended – in fact, they keep your reader’s card until you return it, which means you’ll have trouble getting back in past the security guard if you leave the room to go to the little historian’s room. Bladder discipline is key!
  • The computerized ordering system allows you to save (PDF or Excel) a list of all/any of the mss you’ve ordered – hence the numbers at the beginning of this post.
  • If you’re relying on Additional manuscript volume numbers cited in early 20C works, particularly if they are below 10,000 or so, the numbers have likely changed. You will need to search the online catalogue, check the manuscript catalogues in the reading room, or ask the helpful Reference archivists in order to find them. In some cases they may have been renumbered with a higher number.
  • One useful policy is the ability to transfer certain mss volumes (up to three) to the Rare Book Reading Room, which is open till 8 whereas the Mss Reading Room is only open till 5. Here too, you need to plan ahead, because you can only submit those volumes to be transferred between 4:00-4:15 PM – and the curator will only allow volumes in good condition to be sent downstairs. They’ll be available to pick up at 5, and then they’ll be returned back to the Mss room the next morning (you can only do this Mon-Thurs). When you go down to the much larger Rare Book room at 5 PM, there are a limited number of seats you can use for mss consultation (over by the Music desk), so get one of those seats (you need the seat number anyway) before you try to pick up the volumes. When you go to pick them up, don’t wait in the regular line with everybody else (around the corner, way on the left), but instead check at the Inquiries section of the desk (closer to the corner) and tell them you have mss to pick up. I lost two evenings when I asked at the wrong place, and the staff there said the mss items weren’t sent down. They were, as it turns out, sitting on a cart right there but I asked the wrong people who didn’t know how their system worked.
  • If this was 10-20 years ago I would need to say something about the reference books available in the reading rooms – dictionaries, catalogues, concordances… But nowadays you can get almost all those 19C-20C published books as PDFs on your laptop and find more online using wifi, so I didn’t use them. It looks like the earliest BL catalogues are still only in the reading room though, as they are manuscript and not published. I didn’t have time to look through them, so I can’t say much more about them.
  • Always remember, you should always be nice to the staff regardless of any frustrations or seeming grumpiness on their part, although there wasn’t much of that. Not only do we need them, but you don’t want to piss off the people who provide you with the documents.

This was my experience, though YMMV as they say.

Anybody have any other tips on mechanics from the various EMEMH-relevant libraries/archives they’ve been to? You know, the unofficial version, beyond what you’ll find in their online policies.


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3 responses to “So what did you do in May?”

  1. Björn Thegeby says :

    Great info! For those of us living abroad I can add that to get in in the first place you need a utility bill from your home country to prove your address. I did not bring one….

    • jostwald says :

      I had read that, but for some reason they define utility bill rather narrowly, e.g. they didn’t want my dental bill. So people might want to bring a couple of options just in case.

  2. Gavin Robinson says :

    “I was told you could order items for the next day after 5 PM, but that didn’t work for me the two times I tried it early on (I suppose you are supposed to just guess some seat number that you’ll be at the next day).”

    I think if you order for the next day you have to collect them from the issue desk even if they’re not select. You can get a seat when you go in, then they ask for the number when you collect. (For anyone who hasn’t been there, getting a seat means finding a desk with nothing on it and putting something of yours on it. There’s no booking system like the one they have at the PRO.)

    I use a bank statement as proof of address. Whatever you use has to be less then three months old. Proving my address to archives is now the only reason why I still get paper statements! I don’t usually have any trouble renewing as I’ve had long term passes since 1997 (they used to last 5 years but now the maximum is 3). If you’ve never been before, expect to be grilled about what exactly you need to look at and why you can’t get it anywhere else. I also had a green card for the manuscript room when it was in the British Museum, which seems to give me an easier time getting select MSS. Not everyone is allowed to look at them. Even if you have BL pass, you’ll also need a letter of introduction. But of course you probably won’t know in advance which ones are select. Some volumes of the diary of Sir Simonds D’Ewes are, but others aren’t!

    Marks & Spencers is a good place to get sandwiches for lunch. There are two in St Pancras station, but the one at the north end is better as it’s bigger and less crowded. To get there go out of the side gate of the BL (between the library itself and the conference centre) onto Midland Road and turn left. Head north past the taxi rank until you get to a bus stop, then go into the side entrance of St Pancras. Go straight ahead towards the exit opposite, and M&S is on the left before the doors.

    I’ve found that Farringdon Travelodge is relatively cheap and perfectly adequate accommodation (not great, but adequate). It’s about 15-20 minutes walk from the BL, or you can get the 63 bus.

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