The BL: A Scholar’s Paradise Found
Linda C. Mitchell
On January 3, 2020, I posted the following on Facebook: “Happy to be back at the British Library. Desk #300 was waiting for me like an old friend.” To my surprise, Susan Cogan (Utah State University) and several other scholars responded with “I love how so many of us have favorite desks.” Susan’s response prompted me to ask several scholars what makes being a reader at the British Library special. I received a variety of responses.
Desks in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room. Photo by Linda C. Mitchell.
The most popular response from readers mentioned the abundance of riches at the British Library. Jack Lynch (Rutgers University) emphasized that “There’s no richer collection in the world than the British library—15 million books and manuscripts in every language you’ve ever heard of (and many you haven’t). What John Dryden said of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is true of the BL: ‘Here is God’s plenty!’” Nicholas Brownlees (University of Florence) had a similar response: “My stand-out memory at the new British Library is when for the first time in the Rare Books division I saw before me the hundreds of volumes making up the Thomason Tracts. The collection comprises the thousands of pamphlets and newsbooks collected by George Thomason during the explosive British revolutionary Civil War and Interregnum years of 1640-1660. Without this collector’s extraordinary foresight and dedication our knowledge of that momentous period in British history would have been severely incomplete.”
Other responders recalled working at the British Museum, complete with all the glitches, before it became the British Library. Medievalist Martin Camargo (University of Illinois Champaign, Urbana) recalls, “I did most of my intensive work on British Library manuscripts before the collection was moved to its present location at St Pancras, so my most vivid memories are of the Students’ Room at the British Museum, where I have spent many productive and enjoyable hours. What I miss about that space is its intimacy. One was more aware of the other users and more likely to interact with them than in the new Manuscripts Reading Room, where it is much easier to keep to oneself and so miss the chance to spot old friends or make new ones. On the other hand, I doubt that users of the luxurious new facilities have had to wait an extra day to consult a manuscript because the lock had to be repaired on the cabinet in which it was stored or try to shield a manuscript they were reading from the fine black ash drifting from the aging ventilation system above.” Marina Dossena’s (University of Bergamo) first memory of the British Library also dates from the time when it was still at the “centre of the British Museum, like the core of a planet: an impressive, and certainly daunting, shrine of literature and culture. All those important names who had read and written there, and now there I was, young little me peeking through the door. Since then, the British Library has changed almost beyond recognition, with its scarily fast escalators, the shop, the cafeteria and all the tokens of 21st-century user-friendliness. And yet, when the doors close behind you and the space is quiet again, the ghosts of manuscripts past still crowd around you and keep you company as you order yet another book from the mysterious vaults.”
The King’s Library (George III). Published with permission of the British Library.
Another group of responders likened their British Library experience to the excitement of being detectives and searching for that next clue. Lynch says, “There’s nothing like the thrill of discovery that comes from reading works that have lain untouched for decades, even centuries, all neatly catalogued and awaiting consultation. In reading a late eighteenth-century diary, I came across passages so compelling and so absurd that I burst out laughing in the manuscript reading room, earning dirty looks from the earnest medievalists around me. But that discovery was what made me resolve to start writing the book that has preoccupied me for the last fifteen years.”
I had a similar experience when I was working on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century letter-writing manuals in England. The model letters were used for letter-writing instruction, but I discovered they were also meant to frighten young ladies to keep strict moral behavior. The letters were so terrifying that I gasped aloud in horror at the tales of seduction and of sex trafficking. Another time I suspected I had come across some of the books Samuel Johnson borrowed and cut out words from to build his data base for his dictionary.
The British Library. Photo by Linda C. Mitchell.
The British Library may be updated with technology, but many favorite things remain the same: the long chats over coffee or tea with fellow researchers in the cafe, the community of scholars working in the reading rooms, the forging of new friendships over common research goals, and the vast body of material welcoming scholars to explore. As I finish my book on lexicography in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, I am already planning my next project at the British Library.
Published with permission of the British Library.
I close with Lynch’s advice: “Access to the British Library is easy, but first-timers should read the website carefully to know what paperwork is needed to get access to different parts of the collection.” The new visitor should also be familiar with rules that are strictly enforced in reading rooms. For more information, click on this link: https://www.bl.uk/help/how-to-get-a-reader-pass.
David Vancil is now in charge of the section on Collections and has the following request.
David Jost has asked me to assume the role of correspondent for the COLLECTIONS section of the newsletter. I accepted, but I need your help.
Many members collect word books for research. Undoubtedly, many more members have worked recently in a public or academic special collection, perhaps receiving provided financial assistance.
I don’t know who’s doing what or why. I’m sure other members are in the same boat.
You may also post on the DSNA Facebook page. I check it all the time. I’ll make sure your material gets included in the newsletter.