A Graduate Researcher’s Guide to the British Library

by Deven M. Parker, PhD student.
One of the most exciting aspects of pursuing a career in higher education is, for me, the opportunity to conduct research overseas. As a graduate student specializing in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British writing, my interests have taken me to the British Library, the institution that holds many of the hard-to-access manuscripts and first-edition texts that have proved crucial to my research. Since I’ve been fortunate to make two of these trips in the last few years, I want to provide some advice and suggestions for those of you who will be journeying there this summer, in the hope that you’ll avoid some of my rookie mistakes. Working in the BL has been one of the highlights of my graduate education, but there are a few things I wish I’d known beforehand, tips that could’ve made my research trips much more productive and enjoyable.

 BL ProTip Number 1: Register for a reader pass online within three months of your arrival.

You have the option to sign up for your Reader Pass (the ID card you need to enter the reading rooms) online before you get to the library. Do this, because it takes much less time than registering in person when you get there. Now, the instructions on the website claim that you’ve got to prove to the librarians that you need a Reader Pass in order to access special materials only held at the BL, so it’s not a bad idea to come prepared with a title of at least one rare book or manuscript that you want to check out. In my experience, though, this rule isn’t very strict, and you can certainly check out texts commonly held in other university libraries. Once you get to the library, head to the Reader Registration office to complete your registration.

 BL ProTip Number 2: Figure out which books you need in advance and request them.

Head to the BL’s online catalogue and make note of which materials you want to request. Unlike standard libraries, you can’t browse through physical books in the BL; instead, you request them online for delivery to a circulation desk. This takes about 30 minutes or less for most materials, but for others it can be several hours or days, especially if something is kept offsite. It’s best to request things a few days in advance of when you’ll be there.

 BL ProTip Number 3: Obtain letters of referral from your professors for rare or important material.

When I visited the BL for research as an undergrad, I waltzed into the manuscript reading room and asked to see the handwritten manuscript of Keats’s Hyperion. The librarian gave me an icy, British stare and informed me that the MSS was under the library’s highest security clearance, and there was a slim-to-none chance of me seeing it. After a hysterical phone call, my advisor faxed me a letter-of-referral that gave my research some credibility and requested that I be allowed to see Keats’s manuscripts. This helped me gain access to a fair copy notebook of Keats’s, but I never got to see that manuscript of Hyperion since I’d damaged my scholarly cred from the start (although Jeff Cox informs me that almost no one is allowed to see that particular manuscript, which makes me feel better). The moral of the story is, always come prepared with one of those letters. And try to keep your voice from trembling when speaking to the hawk-eyed librarian in the manuscripts room.

BL ProTip Number 4: Don’t look like a bumbling newbie in the reading rooms

So you’ve got your Reader Pass, and now you want to go check out the books you requested. STOP. In order to avoid public humiliation in front of hundreds of scholars, make sure you can answer “no” to the following questions: A) Am I carrying pens? B) Am I carrying Chapstick? C) Am I wearing a coat? D) Do I have any snacks? None of these items are allowed in the BL Reading Rooms, so in order to avoid being thrown out by security guards (not saying that happened to me…) head down to the locker rooms to store everything except for your laptop, notebook, pencil, phone, charger, and ID. You’ll need a pound coin to put your stuff in a locker (you get it back). Then, grab one of those clear bags to put your belongings in.

Now you’re ready to pick a reading room. It’s up to you where you sit, but remember that manuscripts can only be accessed in that particular room. My favorite room is Humanities 2, although it can get crowded if you go later in the day. When you enter the room, flash your Reader Pass to the security guard and choose a desk. It doesn’t matter where you sit, but REMEMBER YOUR DESK NUMBER. You’ll need this for when you go to circulation to get the books you requested. There’s nothing worse than doing a walk of shame across the room to check your desk number. Nothing. Worse.

That’s it! Research away. There are water fountains with little paper cones outside when you need a break. There’s also a Pret-A-Manger across the street when you’re ready for lunch, but all the cool kids pack food to eat in the courtyard.

 BL ProTip – Bonus: Buy a souvenir from the BL gift shop!

I have a soft spot for museum gift shops in general, the BL’s is really something special. Hogarth coasters? Check. Persuasion tote? Oh yeah. Postcards of manuscripts to hang in your Hellems 01 cubicle? You betcha. Buy a souvenir to remember your incredible research trip!