This week I became a reader at the British Library, and I want to tell you the steps I went through (spoilers: it was easy!)
A friend suggested meeting at the British Library to see the Buddhism exhibition. Great, said I (since I had heard really good things about it) but would you mind if I also tried to view a document while I’m there? Being a very nice friend, he said that would be quite alright with him.
The British Library is the national library of the UK and has over 170 million artefacts in its London and Yorkshire archives. They add 3M more items every year! It houses millions of books, of course, and other printed media, but also sound recordings, maps, digital pubs, stamps, music manuscripts and much more. Useful resources for family historians include records from British families in India, published genealogies, letters and diaries.
The document I hoped to see is a 1904 letter from President Roosevelt, which had been donated to the British Museum in memory of my ancestor in the 1930s. The story behind this is really intriguing, but I’ll save that for another post. Because this post is all about ACCESS. (And because I want to entice you back to my blog soon …)
We arrived at the library at around 11.15 am on a Monday and went straight to the main library visitor reception desk to find out how I, a commoner, could view a document in the collection. To start, I needed to register as a reader. And all I would need to register were a couple of forms of ID – which could include my driver’s license and a credit card. “Shall we do this?” I asked my friend. He claimed to be genuinely interested to go behind the scenes, and I was happy to take his word for it, so we headed upstairs to register. There were a few people ahead of me in the queue to the registration front desk. The man on the front desk checked I had ID, asked about the nature of my enquiry, and then pointed me to a computer where I could start my registration. After filling in a few fields I received a number and was advised to take a seat. About 10 mins later my number was called. I showed my ID, briefly explained my area of research, and had a photo taken. Within a couple of minutes I had my reader card! Next, she told me, I should go to the Rare Books & Music room. My quest had begun!
The security person in the entrance of the Rare Books room gave me rather dour instructions to rid myself of my coat and bag – and my friend – before entering. I was grateful to my friend for immediately leaving with my stuff, allowing me to enter the inner sanctum. Thankfully, every other staff member I encountered couldn’t have been more helpful and unstuffy. A librarian in the Rare Books room walked me through creating an online account and submitting a request for my document. I had been told earlier that the document could take anything from 1-48 hours to be delivered, depending on its location. But I was in luck! It would be ready for me in the Manuscripts Reading Room in about 70 minutes.
This was a perfect time to go to the exhibition – which was excellent. And then we grabbed some lunch (amazing Earl Grey cake surrounded by shelves of books = heaven!).
Finally, I was ready to go to the Manuscripts Room. My letter was waiting for me, within a large book of assorted letters from different eras. I wasn’t permitted to photograph it, and I didn’t have a notepad, but I did have a pencil and my exhibition programme – good enough for a quick transcription. It was pretty thrilling to touch a letter hand-signed by President Roosevelt. But what I was really hoping for was any documentation that came with it. Sadly, the letter had no provenance materials, but I spoke to a librarian and he said I should email the archivist. So that’s what I have done (to be continued …)
It was really inspiring to discover that this incredible and hallowed institution is so welcoming and that the items it holds aren’t kept hidden away, but are made available quickly and easily to regular people like me. And you!