Visiting the British Library: Practical Notes

Reading this useful post on registering at the British Library reminded me that I’d been meaning to write up some practical remarks on visiting the place: things I wish I’d known myself when I started making trips there. I’m sure there are plenty of things I could still do more efficiently on day trips to the BL, but I hope that none of the following thoughts are wrong and that some of them might be useful to someone.

  • The Manuscripts Reading Room has the same opening hours on Saturdays as it does on weekdays. Train tickets are significantly cheaper on Saturdays, to the point where (where I live, at least) they compete well with bus tickets.
  • After registering you can order manuscripts online (go here, select ‘Request Other Items’, log in and select ‘Western Manuscripts Collection’).
  • There’s a limit to the number of items you can order up to the Manuscripts Reading Room at once, and things you return don’t necessarily get sent back immediately.
  • But the staff usually seem happy to make a point of sending something back rapidly if you’re working through a lot of different items and need to clear space to order more up, if you explicitly ask them to do so.
  • Personal photography isn’t allowed.
  • I’ve remarked before that I try always to carry a magnifying glass and a ruler when travelling for research; the BL is the place that taught me that these aren’t always just lying around in reading rooms for anyone to use.
  • The Manuscripts Reading Room has some box-and-snake lights which they’ll let you borrow to examine watermarks or get a better look at something.
  • The Cotton Room at the back of the library’s top floor is for readers and friends of the library only, and is a nice compromise between the bustle of the public parts of the library and the restrictions of the reading rooms. The roof terrace at the back used to have a nice view, too; now you can look at a big new medical research centre.
  • Food: the food sold within the BL itself is nice but not cheap. A packed lunch is my usual solution. The cafe in the local community centre, five minutes’ walk down Ossulston Street, does simpler and significantly cheaper food, and offers a valuable change of atmosphere. The Cafe Albertini nearby on Charlton Street is somewhere between the community centre and the BL’s own restaurant.
  • The permanent exhibition demands a visit. Several visits. The first time I wandered in during my lunch break I was shocked that (a) I’d never visited it before and (b) no one had explicitly told me I should visit it. So: if no one’s told you to visit it, visit it!
  • @BL_Ref_Services can be a useful source of updates.
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  1. Pingback: Visiting Cambridge University Library: Practical Notes » DES

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