Access manuscripts and archives

The Garden of Pleasure, in Roman de la Rose

The following information is a guide to accessing manuscripts and archives and obtaining a Letter of introduction or recommendation.

Published date:

Most manuscript and archive items can be seen by anyone with a valid British Library Reader Pass, but some items may be temporarily unavailable, and viewing others requires special permission.

If you are planning to see a specific collection item, should check in advance whether any restrictions to access apply by contacting a member of the Reference Team. You may also find details about specific items on our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue.

Western manuscripts requiring a letter of introduction

A significant number of the British Library’s manuscripts and archives are very valuable and/or fragile. If you need to handle our more vulnerable and important items you need to supply us with a letter of introduction (or recommendation). We can then increase your privileges on the ordering system so you can order certain valuable/fragile items relevant to your area of research interest. The privilege lasts as long as your pass is valid, so you need to supply us with a new letter if you renew your British Library Reader Pass.

Materials typically found in this Special Access (Select) category include medieval literary and illuminated items, important historical documents and works by famous or important authors. The items are normally identified in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue by a note in the Details description saying ‘Conditions of Use: Letter of introduction required to view this manuscript’.

Note that we have surrogates for many of the items in the Special Access (Select) category, so you may be able to conduct your research without a letter. There may be reasons why we cannot make something available (on exhibition, undergoing conservation or digitisation, etc.) but we may be able to supply a surrogate in place of the original. Please contact us if you encounter either of these problems.

Items with additional restrictions

Please note that additional restrictions apply to some of our most vulnerable and important manuscript and archive material. If there is a note in the detailed catalogue description saying ‘Access Conditions: Restrictions to access apply, please consult British Library staff’ then this indicates that there are further restrictions in addition to the need to supply us with a letter of introduction. Please contact the Reference Team for further advice.

Letter of introduction (or recommendation)

The following information is guidance on obtaining a letter of introduction or recommendation.

Who can supply a letter and the form it should take

  • The letter should be from someone who knows you, and can explain and personally support your need to see manuscript material held at the British Library
  • The letter should be from someone appropriate or suitable, such as an academic colleague, tutor, archivist, publisher, agent or member of a relevant society
  • The letter should be signed and on headed paper. We cannot therefore accept emails, but the letter can be sent in as a scanned attachment with an email message

Information required

  • Your name (and British Library Reader Pass number, if you have one)
  • The subject of your research
  • The reason you are conducting research (if engaged in academic research please indicate your status, e.g. M.A. student, Ph.D. student, academic, etc.)
  • What you intend to do with your research (e.g. journal article or ongoing academic research)
  • The type of material you wish to consult (if you want to see a small number of specific items please list them)
  • The level of experience you have in the use of vulnerable, original material (if you are enrolled on a Masters course or are beginning a Ph.D. please indicate the training you have received)
  • The name and position of the person supplying the letter for you

Getting the letter to the Library

We recommend that you bring the letter with you to the relevant Reading Room (Manuscripts or Asian and African Studies) in our main building at St Pancras and show it to the member of staff on duty at the Reference Enquiry Desk before placing an order. It might also help to show the letter to staff in our Reader Registration office when applying in person for a British Library Reader Pass.

Otherwise, if you have a British Library Reader Pass you can send us the letter, quoting your Reader Pass number. Scanned letters can be sent in as email attachments to the Manuscripts Reading Room or the Asian and African Studies Reading Room.

Why a letter is required

The letter is not primarily intended to act as proof of identity, which is why we cannot accept staff passes or faculty cards in place of a letter. We use the letter to get a more rounded understanding of your research needs, so we can see how best to help you. By asking for a letter readers are also reminded (or made aware of the fact) that they are requesting access to material that is vulnerable and valuable (both culturally and financially) and that they should either have experience of handling fragile and important material or have received training in how to handle it.

Please note that we ask everyone to supply us with a letter of introduction, regardless of academic or professional status. The request for a letter pre-dates our move to St Pancras in 1997 and has proved to be a reasonable, practical and transparent way of demonstrating to others (including external auditors) that we take our responsibility as custodians of the national collection of manuscripts and archives very seriously. It has also proved an efficient way of managing requests for special material without making it necessary for readers to apply for, and explain their need to see, items on an individual basis – although material for which ‘restrictions for access apply’ need to be requested separately.

Surrogates in the form of digital images, microfilms, facsimiles, etc. are normally available for material in the Special Access or Restricted categories, and many of them have been edited, published, translated and discussed at length in secondary sources. We therefore regret that, typically, we cannot make items in the Special Access or Restricted categories available to those enrolled on taught undergraduate courses.

Collection guides

Sale catalogues

An essential resource for provenance research

Royal manuscripts

Manuscripts collected by English sovereigns from Edward IV onwards

King’s manuscripts

Medieval and post-medieval manuscripts and topographical material

Medieval and early modern British historical manuscripts

Sources for British history before 1600

Manuscript maps

Cartography from the Middle Ages to the present

Western illuminated manuscripts

Approximately 9,000 manuscripts with decoration or illumination

Bookbindings

A wide-ranging collection of fine and historic bindings

Medieval and early modern British literary manuscripts

Sources for British literature before 1600

Music manuscripts and archives

Sources for vocal and instrumental works from the Middle Ages to the present

Harley manuscripts

Manuscripts, charters, and rolls collected by the Harley family

Arundel manuscripts

Medieval and early modern manuscripts collected by Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel

Burney manuscripts

One of the most significant collections of classical material in the British Library

Classical Latin manuscripts

Manuscripts of Latin authors from before 600

Early printed books

Highlights of incunabla and books printed before 1600

Hebrew collections

Manuscripts copied over 1,000 years ago to the most recent monographs and serials