Working in the British Library

With a project of this nature, where the focus is inevitably on early printed and manuscript sources, it’s inevitable that the project team finds themselves spending considerable time in research libraries. I spent part of the summer working from the British Library in London in order to look at a range of printed conversion narratives, from various editions of The Italian Convert (1608) translated by William Crashaw, to The English Spanish Pilgrime (1629) by James Wadsworth. The British Library has an exceptional collection of manuscripts and early printed material and is also a brilliant place to source difficult to find or recently published secondary texts. For example I had been keen to read a new publication by Antoininia Bevan Zlatar who works at the University of Geneva: Reformation Fictions: Polemical Protestant Dialogues in Elizabethan England (Oxford: 2011) as it was only published three months ago it was unlikely that any of the University libraries I use would have a copy. A helpful staff member at the BL managed to fast track its cataloguing so that I could look at it while I was in London.

During the academic holidays the BL can get very busy with visiting scholars and students; this often leads to the unseemly spectacle of readers jostling for lockers and desks when the library opens. Despite the occasional crush it’s heartening that the library is so popular and that it is able to host such a broad range of researchers, from school students to independent scholars and novelists. Unlike some smaller research libraries access to rare books is not restricted to those with university affiliation and any member of the public with a permanent address who wishes to carry out research is eligible for a reader pass. It is not uncommon for the reading rooms to become full and every available surface/seat in the foyers and cafes to be occupied by a student or researcher hunched over a laptop, coffee in hand, silently working on a project or catching up on emails. The cavernous building – opened in 1997 and designed by the architect Colin St. John Wilson – was the largest public building to be constructed in the UK in the twentieth century. Because of the Legal Deposit Act (1911) the library is entitled to a free copy of every book published in the UK and the Republic of Ireland and approximately three million new acquisitions are added to its shelves every year.

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