by Emily Ward
The British Library is one of those resources which can be so initially overwhelming that you don’t know the first place to start in order to make the best use of it. With over 56 million items, even navigating through the 17 different online catalogues seemed a daunting prospect to me. It was for this reason that I decided to attend one of the Doctoral Open Days run by the library, which are specifically aimed at postgraduates in the first year of PhD study.
One of the things I appreciated most was how clear it is that the British Library really are trying to make things as easy and accessible as possible. Their digitisation projects are vast and they are currently working with Google Books to increase the number of works freely accessible online. The EThOS service (www.ethos.bl.uk), which I was previously naively unaware of, helps to find past theses relevant to your research. With over 300 000 available to consult, or even download for free, this tool is an invaluable one to the postgraduate researcher, and a free webinar is being held on 13 February 2014 if you want to find out more about this.
From a medievalists perspective, the 25 000 medieval manuscripts held by the library are an unrivalled primary source haven. And the illuminated manuscripts provide some of the finest images, many of which are now also online and can be viewed without even having to make the trip to London (the British Library Flickr account is also worth browsing for a range of images). Even if you aren’t a medieval historian, the British Library’s ‘Medieval Manuscripts’ blog is worth a look with its strange and wonderful insights and catchy article titles such as ‘Knight v Snail’ and ‘Unicorn Cookbook’.
At the end of a fantastically informative day, I treated myself to a visit to the ‘Treasures Room’ which is free to access and open to everyone. From Shakespeare originals to envelopes on which Beatles songs and lyrics were first written, from beautifully illuminated Qur’ans to the earliest copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland illustrated by the author himself – this display really did live up to its name. For me personally, the opportunity to view several medieval ‘treasures’ was particularly exhilarating. The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf survives in only one eleventh century manuscript which is in this room, as is the earliest extant original English charter from 679 and the autograph copy of the Historia Anglorum by Matthew Paris. For those interested in legal history you can also view copies of Magna Carta from 1215 and whet your appetite in advance of the 800th anniversary of the signing of the document taking place next year.
So if you, like me, are early on in your postgraduate studies and want to explore what the British Library holds that could be relevant for your research, I can highly recommend the Doctoral Open Days. Or why not visit just for an interesting and history-related day out?
Their current exhibition, ‘Georgians Revealed’, is running until 12 March 2014. And finally, I have to pass on my most sincere thanks to the British Library for providing a travel bursary to attend the event, and to all the staff involved in making the day so interesting and beneficial.