Tag Archives: Conducting Primary Source Research

Using the Yale Center for British Art

This week marked my first time working with an actual William Blake manuscript, having looked at the sole complete copy of Jerusalem at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. As a result—following (the always-insightful) Kelli Towers Jasper’s post on visiting the British Library—I thought I’d do well to write my own post on an equally wonderful, although similarly daunting (for some of us, anyway), institution.

Conduct Research Beforehand: Gaining access to the Center for British Art’s collection is both surprisingly easy and astonishingly free. Their prints, drawings, rare books, and manuscripts collection encompasses some 30,000+ objects. So, you can be assured there’s something in New Haven for just about any anglophile. No appointment is necessary to access the collections, nor is it required to let the Center’s staff know which works you’ll be accessing beforehand. That said, in order to make the best use of the collection possible, you’ll do well to take advantage of the Center’s fabulous search engine, which includes a wonderful “subject” component that may allow you to find works associated with whatever primary object(s) you’re visiting the Center to take a look at, in the first place.

Arriving in New Haven: It’s no secret that New Haven is inconveniently located in terms of accessible nearby airports. While you can fly into New Haven Tweed Airport, served by U.S. Airways Express through Philadelphia, your best bet will likely be to fly into Hartford Bradley International. It’s served by Southwest, every grad student’s favorite airline—in Windsor Locks, CT, 50 miles north. While the Yale University website alludes to shuttle service that serves the institution out of Bradley, I’ve yet to figure that one out. Your best bet will be to either rent a car, provided your research budget allows, or cab it from Bradley to the nearby Amtrak station and take the train into New Haven (my fav). Once in New Haven, the British Art Center is a fairly straight-shot by cab and your fare should be low.

Once at the British Art Center: All you need to do is arrive at the Center during the  Prints, Drawings, Rare Books, and Manuscripts Room’s open hours (Tuesday through Friday, 10.00a to 4.30p) with picture ID (a university ID or driver’s license will do). You’ll need to check your bag at the door, but will be allowed to bring whatever research materials you need (books/laptop or tablet/notes/etc.) with you. Once in the room you’re looking for—on the second floor—the wonderfully courteous staff will greet you and ask what object(s) you’ve arrived to see. From there, you’ll need to present your identification and complete a brief registration card. While the staff prepares the materials you’re after, you’ll need to wash your hands in the sink next to the front desk.

Working with Your Object: The Center’s staff, having prepared your study area, complete with an easel, will instruct you on how your object should be handled. In the case of Jerusalem, it was important not to hold any of the separate plates vertically, since not all of them had been matted equally. The staff will monitor your work closely, and gently coach you—should you start to do something wrong (which they assured me occurs almost inevitably when you’re working materials there for the first time). You’ll be able to take notes with a pencil and be free to search through materials you’ve brought with you or request additional items along the way. My advice is to plan your visit so that after an initial period of engaging with your object, you’re able to take a break for lunch in order to process what you’ve looked at thus far. The staff will keep your study exactly as you’ve left it and—at least in my case—I returned with a renewed sense of energy and clear mind to continue to wrestle with Blake’s art.

In Conclusion: Visiting the Center proved to be a great and astoundingly stress-free experience. I highly recommend seeing what their collection might offer with respect to enriching most anyone’s research. Cheers to any other NGSC-ers completing primary-source research this summer. I’d love to hear what you all have been looking at and what your experience was like, in the comments, as well.


See you all in Park City.

Using the British Library

I’m sitting in the Rare Books Room at the British Library, waiting for my book requests to be filled…and it occurs to me that this is the perfect time to record my impressions of my first time using this amazing, if somewhat intimidating, repository of the world’s knowledge.  Six years ago I came to London to research for my MA thesis, fully intending to use the BL – but I chickened out.  When I found a smaller, specialized library that met all my research needs at the time (and where I got well-enough acquainted with the librarians that they recognized my face the moment I walked back in their door last week), I ended up simply staying there; I just never mustered the gumption to face the gauntlet I knew lay between me and the books at the BL.  This time around, though, I’m happy to report that I’ve faced my demons. I thought I’d use this idle book-awaiting time to give a brief crash-course on using the Library, perhaps to save you your own book-awaiting time, and definitely to help assuage the trepidation you, like me, might have felt about this imposing institution.


Before you ever arrive in London, there are many things you can do to prepare yourself, and streamline all the registration you’ll need to complete before gaining admittance to the books.  First, visit the library’s website, and browse their catalogue. (Note that the catalogue is on a different site than the library’s homepage; it took me awhile to find it).  Try to come up with a firm idea of what you’d like to look at (it’s helpful to make a list, so you can pace yourself when you arrive).  Since your time at the library will probably be limited and valuable, you want to do your best to make sure you’ll be looking at things you can’t get closer to home.

Second, Register for a reader’s pass online. This will get you started on the process; you actually complete it after you arrive at the library.  Keep track of your assigned reader number – you’ll be asked for it often.

Third, when packing your bags, make sure you pack the necessary forms of identification with you! You need two forms of ID validating your name and current address (like a driver’s license and passport, if they have your current address), plus something that indicates your affiliation with whatever cause (like a student card from your University that shows you’re a graduate student).  If you’re using the manuscript library or some of the rarest items, a letter from your advisor on official university letterhead is also helpful.  Online you fill out everything that the application asks for, and then, again, keep a record of the number they assign you, as well as the password you select for your account.

Finally, request the books you would like to look at, for the days you want to look at them.  Do this through the catalogue page, after you’ve logged in as a registered reader. This will save you the trouble of waiting the minimum 70 minutes (or up to 48 hours) it will take if you request after you’ve arrived. You don’t need to do this far in advance; even a couple of hours will work… but especially for your first day or two, you might be happy to have a plan.  Once you’ve made your requests, the books can be held for you for three business days (this includes Saturdays). When you request, make sure that you really have completed the requests; you’ll know because completed requests are highlighted in yellow.  Anythong not completed will be lost after you log out.

When you request books, you’ll be asked which room you’ll be reading in, and which desk number.  You can know which room by the category of materials you’re examining (see the library’s website for a description of each room), and you can just make up a desk number (98 is mine, today); they’ll ask you your real desk number when they actually hand the books over to you.


Bring the necessary identification with you. Bringing it to London won’t do you any good if you leave it in your hotel room.

Find the Library.  Chances are, you’ll be coming in on the tube, from the King’s Cross/St. Pancras Station.  This can be a bewildering station, since it’s really two train stations and an underground station all connected together.  I’ve been here several times now, and this morning got turned around all over again.  Look for the exits to Euston Road, and don’t be shy about eyeing the map at the station exit in order to get your bearings when you surface.  If you’re like me, then you’ll (usually) exit right between King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations, facing Euston Road. Hang a right, and walk past St. Pancras station. Pause to admire its incredible architecture.  The next building down seems rather nondescript, but it’s the outer circle of the BL courtyard.  Turn right to enter it, and marvel at the oasis that suddenly exists in the middle of what seemed, at 10am, to be one of the noisiest streets on the planet.



Find the entrance to the library, stop to let the (very polite) security guard look in your bag, and proceed to the info desk to ask the way to Reader Registration.


Reader registration

This office will begin to give you an idea of just how many folks use this library, and how they oil the machine, so to speak, to regulate access to the collections.  You wait in the queue (love that word!), and then if you’ve begun your registration online, you’ll be directed to a computer kiosk to complete a few final steps.  Then, you get a number, and wait a few minutes for it to be called.  When you’re up, you sit down with a library officer, who will check your driver’s license (or other document indicating current address), your passport, your student card (if you have one), and any letters of reference you might have brought with you.  If everything checks out, you’ll have your picture taken for your Reader Pass.  They print the pass out then and there, and you keep very good track of it!  You will be asked to show it regularly.

The lockers

With your pass in hand, you’re now ready to proceed downstrairs to the locker room, where you can store all the things you’re not allowed to bring into the reading rooms: that is, pretty much everything but a pencil (no pens!), paper, a laptop, and your glasses.  You will need a £1 coin to work the lockers, but you get it back when you leave each day.  When you’ve secured your things, grab a clear plastic bag from the table, to hold all the stuff you’re bringing with you, and head to your reading room.

The rare books room (or whichever room you’re supposed to read in)

Show your reader pass to the security guards on your way in.  Find a seat.  Notice whether the desk allows personal computers.  Sit down and (if you haven’t already), browse the catalogue and order your books (free wi-fi!  Yay!)  Note that it will take 70 minutes for them to arrive, so sit and muse over your research notes, or maybe work on your blog post for the week.  Begin to feel awkward that you’re the only person at your table not actually looking at books.  Wait a while longer.  Begin to wonder if you actually aren’t supposed to wait for your books to come to you, but that you’re supposed to go get them.  Watch other people around you to see what they do.  See people walking back to their desks with their arms full of books.  Go up to the service desk, see a queue labeled “Book issue and return”, and wait your turn to sheepishly confess your ignorance to a staff member and ask if your books have arrived.  Accept gentle teasing with your armful of books, and return to your seat.  You did it! Now, feel those butterflies madly swarming in your tummy as you gently leaf through your aged, musty-smelling, delicate books.  EEE!  This is so cool!! Wish that you could squeal out loud and shake your neighbor by the shoulders.  Restrain yourself, and get to work.

Now that I’ve been using the library for a few days, I laugh at myself for being so intimidated by it.  I’m still learning some of the ropes, but the daily basics are really simple: order books from home, get to the library, stick my things in a locker, and go to the reading room to pick up my books and read.  “Easy peasy”, as my librarian friend might say.  And beyond the books themselves, it really is fun to be here, to take a look at all the people poring over dusty tomes, and wonder what interesting things they all are working on.  Plus, you just never know who you might run in to:  while I was standing in line to collect my books a few days ago, the girl in front of me looked very familiar.  I finally just said, “I think I know you.  What’s your name?”  Turns out we met last August at the Vancouver NASSR conference! Small world.  So here’s a shout-out to Tara from Toronto, who probably was never nervous about using the British Library.  Hope I run into you again someday soon.

And amid the myriad other things you are probably up to, I wish you all some happy summer researching! Feel free to share your own library recommendations and tips for research success.