Two weeks ago now I packed up my bags and hopped on a train to London to research at the British Library. Despite searching for advice on how to approach the formidable place, I didn’t much know what to expect. Some articles talked about the hierarchy of reading rooms — The Guardian think rare books is the place to be — while others mentioned the awkward photo taken for your reader’s card. Few answered my questions: which reading room should I have my books sent to? What documents do I really need to show? How early do I have to get there? Is it really that busy? What do I do for lunch? Where do I put my things? Will I find a seat?
It’s up to me to answer those questions for you.
In January my independent study supervisor suggested I head to the British Library to research as Bristol’s library is woefully understocked regarding food culture. I looked online and discovered that in order to use the reading rooms, you need to register for a reading pass. I quickly pre-registered online, which involved filling out a quick questionnaire. They gave me my reader number, which I then used to create an online account. This allowed me to search for and request books in advance of my visit. All the books you request get sent to your basket and from there you can figure out how long it will take to get them sent to a reading room. You can choose to send them to any reading room and select the date you want them to arrive. It’s simple, though takes a few tries.
How to decide which reading room? Unless you’re researching a topic for which there is a specific reading room, there are few guidelines for choosing which study space to send your books to. I chose what appears to be the typical choice: humanities 1 (or hum 1). It’s one of the larger reading rooms, with plenty of seats and a hint of natural life. The room is on the first story of the building. When you enter, you walk up two flights of stairs and walk to the back of the floor on the left. There are big glass doors marked humanities one. I enjoyed my choice and found that there was plenty of seating for me every time I went (which was, at one point, in the middle of a Friday afternoon). It may be one of the “less serious” rooms, but that was fine with me.
What documents do you really need to show? After registering online, bring the reader’s number you were given, the list of books you need with shelf marks (do this even if you’ve already requested them), proof of address (I brought a four month old check, which was fine), proof of signature (I used a passport) and any supporting documents (I brought my student card). When you go to the Reader’s registration room, on the far right side of the Upper Ground floor, you’ll need to demonstrate these documents before you can complete your registration.
What time do I need to get there to make sure I’ll get a seat? I read a few posts and articles that advised making sure to get to the library early because it gets busy. I didn’t exactly find this to be the case. When I arrived on Friday at 2:30 pm, I found a seat nearly straight away. There were several other empty seats in the reading room. On Saturday morning, I decided to arrive as soon as they opened. I needn’t have worried. The reading room was a ghost town for the first hour I was there. Ditto on Monday morning. Get there within the first hour or so after opening and you should have plenty of choice as to where to sit.
Note: When you enter the reading room, before getting your books from the desk, you need to find a seat (you’ll need to give them your seat number to collect your books). It might be inconvenient to not find space, but you don’t have to worry about awkwardly walking around holding books. There’s a cafe outside where people sit, so you can always wait around in hopes that someone will leave the reading room.
What do I do for lunch? The library has a “restaurant” (it’s really just a hot bar and salad bar) and a cafe at which you can purchase food. Feel free to pack something in your bag (you’ll be putting it in a locker) to eat as well. I saw some people run outside to the Pret across the street for a meal. People left their belongings at their desk when taking breaks (be sure to take your reader’s card with you!). I tried both the restaurant and the cafe and, though slightly more expensive, preferred the restaurant.
Where do I put my things? There are coin operated lockers on the lower ground floor for you to use. On the day I left, I brought my weekend bag with me and shoved it in there along with my tote bag. They have clear plastic bags for you to put your computer, pencils, phone, earphones, reader’s card and anything else you might need to take into the reading rooms. You’ll have to open up your computer when you leave, so bringing your laptop case into the reading room can prove to be a needless hassle. Nevertheless, I brought mine with me every time. I never had any trouble getting a locker, though they are free for everyone to use so can be hard to come by at the weekend. In that case, there’s a cloak check you can use. If you don’t have pound coins, they have change machines so you can get some.
What if I don’t finish with my books at the end of the day? You can hold back a couple books for up to three days. They’ll be waiting for you at the issue desk when you return.
All in all, I loved my experience at the British Library and can’t wait to go back!
Did I forget anything? Any other questions you have about using the reading rooms at the British Library? Ask me!