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Mission Impossible: Three Hours at the British Library

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Since 22 July, the British Library has slowly been reopening a number of reading rooms to the public. Whether you’re excited to flick through the pages of monographs, to carefully turn to the folios of manuscripts, or just to be among fellow readers, this was joyous news for researchers far and wide.

In order to maintain social distancing and stay in line with government regulations regarding coronavirus, the British Library allocates a limited number of tickets per reading room per day. These tickets allow the reader a three-hour time slot.

Thus, I ask the question, is it an impossible mission to conduct your research in these three hours? I think not.

From my two trips back to the British Library, I want to explain my experience and share a few tips on how to manage your time in the new 2020 reality of archive research.

Secondary Resources

My first trip back to the British Library reading rooms was on Thursday 6 August. I decided Humanities 1 was a good place to start so I could throw myself back into the secondary reading that I was unable to access online. The social distancing of this room was well managed with only every other desk allocated to a reader.

I decided to ease myself in with a light reading of 6 books in the three-hour time slot. This was a vast over estimation of my own ability to speed read.

So, tip number one is not to order too many books. It’s an exciting prospect to be back in the British Library but sadly not all of us will have developed superhuman reading skills during lockdown. For me, it was not possible to get through all these books in my time slot, especially as some turned out to be useful in their entirety. So, I decisively chose which books to read in order of importance. Here is how you can learn from my mistakes.

To be clear, I don’t want to tell you how to read a book. I want to draw your attention to how to get the most out of a book within a limited time frame.

Before you go to the British Library, make sure you read the contents page of the book to pick out the relevant sections. It was helpful for me to read a review as well, (which includes a short summary of the book), so that I had a clear idea of its themes.

When you’re in the British library, use the index of the book to search for key terms and names, then see whether the pages refer to anything useful for you. I would also recommend reading the introduction and conclusion to get an idea of the contents of the book. If you have ordered an edited collection, you’ll usually have ordered it for a specific chapter. So, no advice to offer you here, just get stuck into that chapter.

Of course, if you are at the British Library to check footnote references and the accuracy of your quotes, then order as many books as you need to get those finishing touches for your thesis or piece of writing.

Although what I did manage to read was helpful for my current thesis chapter, I got over-excited about being able to read books in person again. Make sure you are realistic about how many secondary works you can get through in your time slot.

Primary Resources

From 19 August, the British Library opened a couple of other reading rooms, including a number in which you were able to view manuscripts in. Of course, I jumped at the chance and got there on the first day the Manuscript Reading Room reopened. Again, this reading room was well organised with every other seat being used and a one-way system around the perimeters of the room.

Optimistically, I ordered the maximum of five items. As they towered over my desk, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had over-ordered, again. However, with the help of the British Library’s website, I was able to navigate the hundreds of folios stacked beside me.

Primary sources come in a wider variety of forms than secondary works so my tips may not work for everyone. But when I reflected on my experience, I have tried to generalise this for everyone.

(BL Add. MS 23170 in the Manuscript Reading Room)

My first tip would be to use the British Library’s website to explore the search for the manuscript and see if it has been given a detailed catalogue entry. Luckily, my five all had a summary of the contents of each volume.

From the example above, you can see that details are provided for each folio. It has the details of the sender and receiver of the letter, a brief summary of the letter, and the date. I took note of the letters that were important for my research and examined those first. If there are others that are of interest but not essential, make sure to make a note of them and come back to them after the necessary folios have been studied.

An important tip that saved me lots of time was to make sure the primary source you want to see is one you are able to photograph. All five of mine were ones I was able to photograph. So, after going through the important folios, I took photographs of the letters I did not have time to read during my time slot in the British Library and have since gone back through the photos I took in the comfort of my home. Of course, if your primary sources have photographic restrictions then I’d suggest focusing on one or two manuscripts and getting as many details out of them as possible.


Tickets for the British Library are released every Thursday at 11am. Click this link and select the reading room you want to visit (just make sure you order the resources you want to view to the same room and order them before you arrive at the library).

Due to the high volume of people who want to get back through the British Library’s doors, you may need to refresh the page numerous times once you have selected your day. But don’t give up hope; it’s not impossible.

Just a few reminders for your visit. The British Library requires readers to wear a mask around the library and the reading rooms to protect others as well as themselves. Stick to the British Library’s well-organised one-way system and stay socially distanced from staff and other readers. And finally, make sure you use the hand gel dotted around the British Library and wash your hands.

All in all, make sure you enjoy being back reading and researching at the British Library, I know I did. Three hours once a week may not seem like a long time but trust me it is not an impossible mission. Happy researching.

By Anna Turnham, University of Kent and the British Library

Anna Turnham is an AHRC funded CDP PhD Student, working between the University of Kent and the British Library. Anna's research focuses on ‘Sixteenth-Century Anglo-Scottish Diplomacy’, specifically Ambassadors, networks and news in correspondence. This exciting opportunity provided Anna with the opportunity to work on the October 2020 - February 2021 British Library Exhibition titled, ‘Two Queens in One Isle: Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots’.

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