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.
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO BEFORE YOU VISIT:
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.
WHAT YOU DO WHEN YOU ARRIVE:
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.
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.
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.