(Reposted from The University of Wolverhampton History Society Blog)
Somehow, I managed to get to the second year of my PhD before going to the British Library. It was on my hit list right from the beginning, so I’m not entirely sure how I avoided it for this long, but nevertheless I finally made the trip in February. I’ve met a lot of students along the way who find archives and big institutions like the BL quite intimidating, so I’m writing to talk through the process of how to register and what to do when you visit. It’s a lovely place, with friendly staff and spacious reading rooms to work in, so you won’t be disappointed if you do decide to go.
The British Library is a Legal Deposit library, which means that it holds a copy of every item published in Britain. There are others –
The National Library of Scotland
Bodleian Library, Oxford
Cambridge University Library
Trinity College, Dublin
The National Library of Wales
So if London is out of your reach, it may be worth checking the website of any of these places and seeing if you can get access. I chose London because it’s nice and easy: the BL is walking distance from Euston station, so I know I can get straight to it without navigating the colourful and twisty London underground.
Before You Go
The first step is to go to their website and pre-register for a Reader Pass. This is quick and easy, and doesn’t ask you any taxing questions. Once you’ve done this, you will get your confirmation email and instructions for what to do when you show up. You must bring with you two forms of ID – one to show your signature and one to show your address – in order to pick up your Reader Card. Do not be like the guy that was in line before me and haughtily insist that a letter from a Professor was good enough ID to get you in! It’s not a good look. The list for what types of ID you can bring is here. I brought along my bank card with my signature on the back, and my driving licence.
Before you complete your registration in person it’s a good idea to register for the online section too. That way you can search for the documents you want in advance and have them ordered for the day you arrive. You MUST do this to avoid a long wait, as it can take hours or even days for documents to be called up to the reading rooms. The database is straightforward to navigate, and there are different reading rooms for you to choose from. Many documents can only be sent to certain reading rooms, so don’t expect to be able to call up newspapers from the 1800’s to the Music room.
When You Get There
The British Library is a tourist attraction, so expect the foyer to be busy and full of people looking up at the high ceilings. There is a reception desk right in front of you as you walk in, but unless you’re buying tickets for their special exhibitions, you can avoid that step altogether; veer to the right and you’ll see a sign for Reader Registration. You’ll complete the second part of the registration process on their computer, then you’ll be called to one of the desks to show your ID and have your picture taken. They print off your Reader Card for you at the desk, and away you go!
Head downstairs for the cloakroom and locker room. The cloakroom is only really necessary if you’ve brought along your £5000 mink coat and you don’t want to stuff it in a locker, so if you’ve left opulence behind then forget the line for the cloakroom. The lockers are free, and you need to input a PIN that you’ve chosen in order to operate them – there are signs telling you how to do this all over the place – and plastic bags are provided for you to bring your things in to the Reading Room that you’ll need. The rules are pretty much the same in all archives: laptops, phones and pencils are fine, but no water or pens. Don’t forget your Reader Card!
Next stop is your reading room. Show your card at the desk and they’ll have the documents that you ordered ready for you. Choose a desk, get comfy and read. If you want to get up and get some lunch, then it’s fine to leave the documents on your desk but make sure you take your valuables in the plastic bag with you. Remember that the staff there want to help you, so ask any questions you want. Keep an eye on their website for free classes and workshops about using their collection too.
I really enjoyed working in the Newsroom there and I’m looking forward to going again. The desks were huge which is great for someone like me that always takes too many notebooks *just in case*, and the atmosphere was quiet without being oppressive. The last two pieces of advice are to bring a jumper as it often gets quite cold, and to bring a packed lunch. There are cafes to choose from, but if (like me) you’re allergic to London prices there are benches dotted about in the foyer area that you can sit at with your own sandwiches.