This post is about my first time working in the archives at the British Library (BL). I began by obtaining a reader’s card. At first, I was intimidated by the process as it was described on the BL’s website. However, it turned out that a Belgian identity card (which has my signature) and a print out of a phone bill (which has my address) was sufficient. Translation of documents apparently only applies if your documents use a different writing system. The staff were extremely helpful. However, as I arrived late on a Friday afternoon, I was informed that there would not be sufficient time to obtain any of the files, and that it would be best if I ordered the documents in advance for the following day. And therein arose the first negative aspect of my visit. The BL website is not easy to navigate or use. Moreover, the programs demand that you log in separately to access different pages. Patience is required.
The process of actually obtaining the documents and handling them, on the other hand, was spectacular. The librarians and archivists are knowledgeable and helpful, and all of the files that I handled had been foliated, which will make referencing them much easier. Although in one instance, the foliation seemed counter-intuitive considering that the document in question had been sequentially paginated by the author, who had included a table of contents at the front. In this case, I am inclined to use the use the original pagination and thus maintain the document’s integrity. I had requested two items that were restricted, and I had no trouble obtaining them upon presenting my letter of introduction. However, it was not made clear up front on the website inventory that items on the restricted access list cannot be photographed in any way. This is something that needs to be borne in mind for future visits so that the time allotted in a research plan can be increased if the documents in question require transcription then and there.
Another aspect of research in the BL that needs to be taken into account is the order in which you examine documents. I initially ordered and handled items according to their archive number. However, this is not always the most efficient way to proceed. Not all items can be examined at all tables, which are clearly marked out according to the form of the documentation – loose or bound manuscripts – and whether or not they can be photographed. This is meant to enable the archivists to keep an eye on readers to ensure that they are following the restrictions in place, and handling documents properly. However, it does mean that seating space is limited. There are simply not enough tables in the photography permitted section, and although it is considered bad manners, there are readers who will claim a space for the entire day even though they are not actually present for an hour or two (or three or four) while they go about other business. This led to eventual problems every afternoon, as archivists moved people to other tables, causing confusion when new archivists arrived and saw people photographing documents at tables where it was not permitted, which in turn led to work interruptions. It also caused a certain degree of irritation among readers. I was continually reminded by a somewhat crotchety fellow researcher that photography was not permitted at that table, and I was forced to continually remind them that I had permission, and that I did not need them to poke me in my side while I was trying to work. In addition, some of the more long-term residents of the archive feel little compunction about moving your materials if you leave your table for any amount of time.
I strongly recommend that students do their best to determine the type of document they will be handling in advance, and plan accordingly. Order the materials you intend to examine the day before, keeping in mind that only four boxes/bound collections are permitted at a time, and that there is a limit of ten per day. Rather than ordering them according to their numerical place as I initially did, order them by type. Plan to examine and photograph bound manuscripts in the morning, and arrive when the library opens – there is a line to get in, and the line forms again in the manuscript room. If you begin with loose or restricted items, there may not be a desk in the other section by the time you are ready to move on. Moreover, the library databases are accessible in the other reading rooms, which stay open longer. Use those resources after the manuscript room has closed for the day.
Which brings me to my other reason for going to the BL: The State Papers Online (SPO). The speed at which I was able to find and access documents from numerous State Paper files was simply incredible. To accomplish the same amount of research by physically handling the documents in Kew would have taken weeks. It is a shame that the database is so expensive, and yet given the time saved it does indeed remain more cost effective for me to travel to London to do the research. Moreover, the ability to compare the calendars to the actual documents on the spot does highlight exactly how insufficient the calendar entries are at times. In particular, financial documentation is much more complete in the original files. The calendar entries I had previously examined only contain the totals – not the itemized expenditures. The actul expense lists turned out to have a wealth of detailed information on how ambassadors were entertained, and this data is going to contribute enormously to my analysis.
That being said, the SPO does have its drawbacks. The database is very slow at times, and the send file options are not ideal. You can send calendar entries in a marked list (up to 50), but they arrive as individual files. The manuscript images can only be sent one at a time as far as I was able to determine, and if they are images of different folios within one document, the image file names are the same – making it difficult at times to keep track of what image is in the inbox. It proved essential to send each file with a note grouping it within the document, and that required keeping a running inventory. That also enabled to me to keep track of the searches I ran, the keywords I used, and the date parameters I set. I would strongly urge other students to employ the same safeguards as they use the database.