Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jumping through hoops at the British Library

After registering for the British Studies Program, my first thought was, "I must go to the British Library."

Yes, the British Library is a legal deposit library and has every book published in the UK and Ireland.  Yes, it's also a national library. Yes, it's the UK's largest building of the 20th century. Yes, its collections cover 3,000 years of history in every language (even Klingon!). 

British Library

All remarkably impressive. But it's not the reason for my excitement.

The British Library is home to thousands of medieval manuscripts, and many of them are considered to be treasures. Take the St Cuthbert Gospel for example, the oldest intact English manuscript. They also hold the Lindisfarne Gospels, a richly illuminated manuscript encased in a jeweled treasure binding completed in the 8th century. However, curiosity and personal desire to see these manuscripts are not adequate scholarly reasons to request the items.

Instead, I was primarily interested in seeing a Latin Antiphonal (ADD MS 30084). While studying at Indiana University I conducted some research on another volume of the antiphonal, Lilly Library's Ricketts 86. My primary purpose in viewing this earlier volume focused on the illuminator, and I wished to determine whether the British Library volume was indeed illuminated by the same artist, the Master of Gerona. There were a few other items I wished to look at in an attempt to develop a research topic for course assignment, including some of Bede's work and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's personal correspondence.

Before I could view the manuscript, it was necessary to register with the library. The process was more involved here than in any other library I have been, and perhaps rightfully so with half a million people visiting the collection of over 150 million items each year. I started with the pre-registration form online the day before my visit, entering basic contact information. I attempted to request some items online, but was having some difficulty. Later I found out this was due to an added level of security on some of the items I wished to view. Upon my arrival, I was asked questions to evaluate my need for the items in the library and required to produce two forms of ID (one with a signature and one with an address).

The British Library has separate reading rooms based on type of material, and after receiving my card I made my way to the manuscript reading room. Once the security guards inspected my belongings I sought answers to why I was unable to request one of the items I wished to see. It turns out that I needed a letter of recommendation explaining my past experience with manuscripts and why I needed to see that particular resource. Thankfully, my professor was still in the building and generously supplied the information. I then had to wait 70 minutes for that manuscript to be delivered, using a fancy conveyor belt system. 

Unfortunately, cameras are not allowed inside the reading room. I am therefore unable to show the items I looked at, or the beauty of the packed reading room. Later I discovered I hadn't requested the items from the Arthur Conan Doyle papers properly. Each individual item has a specific series of numbers, and each letter or diary needed to be requested using these numbers. I was expecting to request a folder or box, as I had in other libraries.

Screen shot from the collection

Only eight manuscripts per day can be requested, with four requests active at a time. As a result of my blunder, I wasted precious requests and limited the number of items I could view that day. Overall, I spent a great deal of time fumbling through required procedures. Thank goodness I pre-registered online and saved that bit of time during my visit!

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