Orders for The British Library

If all goes well, I’ll be returning to England in a few weeks (yay!), to try to finish the research for what I’m calling “Book 1”.

I need quite a few things from the British Library, which as a Reader with a card, I can order online in advance. About half of what I need has a 48-hour delivery time. When you click on the link to order, the system tells you that you are limited to 10 “items” per day, and that consecutive “issues” count as one item.

So I tried to start with the journal The University Correspondent. I need several articles in several different volumes (years) 1891-1893. But what constitutes an “issue”? The online catalog doesn’t say how many issues are in a volume, but I’m pretty sure it’s too many to make all three years one “item”. So I wrote to the helpful people at the Library, who emailed back next day to tell me that since this journal’s volumes are half a year, the “issues” would be six for January-June, and six more for July-December, in each volume. So that’s six “items”, even though I only need a few short articles from specific issues.

I’ve ended up ordering 20 items from the British Library, so they must be parceled over two days.

I know the drill. First through security with all the tourists coming to see the exhibitions, then downstairs to the lockers. Put my Readers Card, passport, papers, notebook, mobile phone, pencil, laptop, cord, and wallet in the clear plastic bag. Everything else in the purse. Find a locker where I can actually turn the lock (about half the lockers have their lock stuck closed although the door hangs open). Put my purse and water bottle in, then close and latch the door. Remember to put my code in twice, not once (last time I had to get a guard to open my locker at the end of the day). Upstairs to Humanities 1 Reading Room. Show plastic bag and Readers Card to guards. Find a table first, put something there to hold it (this is the tough part – what to leave on the table?), note the number of the table in the notebook, then go to the desk, show my card, say my name, tell them my table number, and chew off my nails as I wait to see whether what I ordered is actually there (that runs about 80% after three previous visits).

This trip, though, I have a backup plan. I will stay in London first, and go to the Library my first two days there (jet-lag city). Then later in the trip I’ll stay at Wetherby, near the Boston Spa location of the British Library. And I’ll have a few days in between, so I can request things that have a 48 hour tag. That gives me two chances to get everything I need.

Working in the reading rooms is both good and bad. Good is that there is plenty of space to work, a free scanning machine to scan pages and email yourself the scans, and helpful people at the desks. Bad is that you can’t take in water or food, so it’s easy to get hungry and thirsty. The chairs are just chairs, not comfortable. It’s so much trouble to exit the building and return (replay the paragraph above with the bag and lockers) that the tendency is to do whatever you can to stay till you’re done. This includes eating at the Library, where the nicest place to eat is quite expensive, and the least expensive place has nowhere to sit. On many days I’ve been there, every available desk or chair that isn’t in a reading room is occupied.

This time I’ll also need some items on microfilm, from the Pall Mall Gazette. I shouldn’t need them. The library has digitized these, and one can access them free on machines in the Newsroom, which I have done, but several words in the articles could not be seen clearly on the screen or the resulting printout. Plus, printing is a difficult process that involves going to the Newsroom desk, showing your card, getting into the computer system to access the card settings, getting help because it never works the first time, taking out a credit card to add money to the reader card, then going back to the printer to insert the card and print one page at a time after carefully lining things up on the difficult-to-use reading machine. I even paid £12.95 in March for a month’s access to British Newspaper Archive, so I could see if they had a better copy – it was a bit better but I’m still missing words (I’m transcribing, so missed words are important).

It’s the sort of thing one doesn’t so much look forward to doing, as to being done. But heck, I don’t care, because I’ll be in England, my favorite place. And when I’m done starving and getting dehydrated and stiff in the reading room, I’ll have days of train rides and unpredictable weather that everyone talks about. I’ll have a few days of international accents all around me, followed by more days of English accents all around me. I’ll be there for the European Parliament elections, because the UK can’t do anything politically important without me there. I’ll go to Evensong and art galleries and see my friend Jenny. And when I return to teach my summer classes, I’ll finish the book somehow and do the proposal, and move on to more work with Mr. Wells.

2 comments to Orders for The British Library

  • That’s a great description of what your research involves Lisa. You don’t say why the chairs in the British Library are so uncomfortable, but perhaps you could take a cushion with you. Can you get inflatable cushions that are light to pack? Or buy one at a charity shop when you arrive? Looking forward to seeing you soon and hearing more about how your research is progressing.

    • Lisa M Lane

      I think it’s just the same kind of straight-backed chair for so long, but you’ve given me the idea of fetching my coat or jumper from the locker and sitting on it later in the day. But I have left electric fans throughout England due to heat waves – I could certainly leave charity shop cushions in libraries. 🙂