Guide to Explore the British Library

Magnifying glass on computer

A guide to help you use the catalogue, covering: login, search, how to manage your results, how to order/view items

Published date:

With Explore the British Library you can search:

  • Our ‘Main catalogue’ for millions of records of items in our collections. Also included are thousands of records for “open access” items that are free online.
  • Our ‘Website’ for thousands of records of our web pages.
  • ‘Explore Further’ for 200 million records for online scholarly materials, much of which is free online.

You should search in the 'Main catalogue' if you:

  • want to order copies of items, to your home or office
  • are a Reader wanting to order printed items to a Reading Room.

Explore the British Library does not include:

  • Records of forthcoming UK books and for UK published items which have been catalogued by the other legal deposit libraries. You can find these records in the British National Bibliography.
  • Records of our archive and manuscript collections. You can find these in Explore Archives and Manuscripts.
  • Other types of material which can be found in specialist catalogues.
  • Records for items listed in our card catalogues. If you know the shelfmark, you can use the catalogue’s ‘Request other Items’ link to request these items.

This guide covers:

Browser requirements

Explore the British Library requires that your browser is:

Log in

You do not need to log in to search the catalogue. You need only log in if you are a:

  • Reader who wants to request items, from the ‘Main catalogue', to a Reading Room
  • customer of our On Demand document supply service who wants to order items, from the ‘Main catalogue', to your home/office.

If you log in you also have access to more services: save search, save alerts, and access to your saved records from the current and previous sessions.

New Readers note, before you can log in to the catalogue and request items to the Reading Rooms you need both a:

Change password or edit account details

Use My Account, to change your password, or edit your account details:

  • enter your Username and Password; if we issued you with a temporary password, enter it here
  • click Log in to see your account details
  • click Change, or Manage Addresses, as appropriate
  • enter your new details and confirm details where requested
  • click Save
  • click Log out to finish.

Search tips

How to enter search terms

You can combine elements in the Simple search, for example, surname and significant word from the title, e.g.:

Austen Pride Prejudice

There is no need to include AND as this is assumed.

If you want to narrow your search down, use NOT and OR (enter these in capital letters), e.g.:

Pride NOT prejudice
Pride OR prejudice
Shakespeare (tragedy OR sonnet)

We recommend using lower case letters for your search terms and uppercase for (AND, OR, NOT).

To search for a phrase, enclose your search terms in quotation marks, for example:

“pride and prejudice”
“global warming”

NB: Use phrase searching to search for one word titles prefixed with ‘the’, e.g. “the Adelphi”, “the Lancet”. 

You can use wildcards to replace one or more characters:

Use ? to replace one character, e.g. wom?n will search for woman and women
Use * to replace more than one character, e.g. cultur* will search for culture, cultural and culturally

To search for an ISBN enter the number without hyphens.

To search for an ISSN enter the number with the hyphen. If you omit the hyphen you will find journal records that match the ISSN but you will not find matching article records.

NB: Use the Advanced search indexes with care, not all records will have been assigned e.g. a Subject. Note too that many of the types found in the limiter ‘Material type’ will only find results in the ‘Main catalogue’.

How to search for people’s names

You can enter them in any order:

  • first name last name
  • last name first name

You can enter them with or without commas separating the names:

  • Henry James
  • James Henry
  • James, Henry.

Note that the results of this type of search will include items about Henry James as well as items by Henry James. To select the subset of items by Henry James, Refine your results by the author’s name.

To restrict your search to items by an author, carry out an Advanced search and choose Author and ‘contains’ from the drop-down menu. If the name is a common one you may still need to Refine your results by the author's name.

Although punctuation and the order of terms have no effect on the number of results retrieved spacing between initials does affect the results seen. A search for ‘Stubbes, EH’ or ‘E.H. Stubbes’ will find a smaller set of results than a search for ‘Stubbes, E H’, or ‘E. H. Stubbes’.

Advanced search

Use the Advanced search indexes with care:

  • not all records will have been assigned e.g. a Subject index.
  • many of the types found in the limiter ‘Material type’ will only find results in the ‘Main catalogue’.

Some specific index searches are 'sticky' which means subsequent searches are restricted by the index previously selected. This will affect the results found. Sticky index searches are:

  • Author / contributor
  • Tags

To clear the index, click 'Explore Home', on the navigation bar, before you carry out another search.

For example, you may click an author / contributor link in the 'Details' tab of a record, to search for other items by that author/contributor. Thereafter, all subsequent searches will have the same author / contributor index applied. To clear the index, click 'Explore Home'.

How do I search for shelfmarks?

If you are sure of the punctuation used, you can include it in your search:

X989/5108
YK.2003.b.4785

If you're not sure, exclude all punctuation: 

X9895108
YK2003b4785

Don't “mix and match” punctuation and spaces: no results will be found, e.g. not

X 989/5108 or YK 2003.b4785. 

If in doubt, use the wildcards ? or *.

For shelfmarks with brackets and hyphens, e.g. (P) NX 099 (M) -E(8) include the following punctuation:

  • The initial brackets
  • The final brackets (if searching for a specific item)

BUT exclude all spaces and the hyphen.

For example: (p)nx099(m)e(8) will find the item, whereas (p)nx009(m), with or without the * wildcard, will return all records with shelfmarks which start like this.

For Science shelfmarks in the Dewey sequence, include the initial brackets, as above, and make sure you include the decimal point in the number, e.g. (b)004.6.

You can also search on elements of a Science shelfmark, by enclosing it in quotation marks, for example:“BW 87”, " EX 39”.

How to search for items published in a specific year or range of years

You can use a wildcard to search for a decade or century. To search for items published between:

  • 1760 and 1769 enter 176?
  • 1700 and 1799 enter 17??

To search for items published between a range of years spanning more than a decade, search for each decade within the range and combine each decade with OR. For example, to search for items published between 1760 and 1789 enter:

176? OR 177? OR 178?

OR must be entered in upper case.

How to search for Newspaper editions

Use Advanced search to restrict a search to a specific newspaper edition. Combine the name of the newspaper with the name of the edition:

  • use the ‘Place Name’ index for the edition
  • restrict by ‘Material type’ Newspapers.

Managing your results

You may not see the record you want because the catalogue groups related works. The 'X related resources' link denotes grouped items in your results list. The record for the item you want may only be visible if you click the 'related resources' link.

Refine

You may not see the record you want because your search finds lots of results. You can Refine your results to reduce the number of records. There are a number of Refine options available.

Note that the Refine options displayed are generated by the records found as a result of your search. Different options will display for different search terms.

The first five terms - usually those with the most items - in each refinement are displayed. You may have the option to expand the list for each one. Or you can select, or exclude, more than one term with ‘Refine further’.

How your results are sorted

The catalogue sorts results by relevance but you can change the sort. The options available are:

  • Date-newest
  • Date-oldest
  • Title
  • Author

All sorts are ‘sticky’; if you chose to re-sort your results by title, for example, when you carry out your next search these results will also be sorted by title. To clear the index, click 'Explore Home'.

The catalogue groups together related items; if you sort by date-newest and date-oldest you may find only one of the grouped items is sorted correctly.

How to print/save/email records

Having found the item you are interested in:

  • click on the 'Details' tab
  • click 'Actions' in the top right-hand corner of the tab
  • click either E-mail/Print or one of the Social bookmarking sites to save the record.

You can also email/print/save records from My Workspace. My workspace allows you to email/print/save more than one record at a time.

How to save searches

All the searches you make in a session are temporarily stored in My workspace; when you finish your session these searches will be deleted.

If you are a Reader or On Demand customer, you can choose to save your searches; you must log in to save searches.

Click the ‘save search’ link above the list of Refine options to the left of your results. Give your search a name and choose whether to ‘Save’ your search or ‘Save & alert’.

Choose ‘Save & alert’ to receive email updates when new items meeting your search criteria are added to the catalogue. If you choose ‘Save & alert’ you will need to supply an email address, unless you have previously stored this in ‘Personal settings’.

Your search/alert is saved into the 'Saved searches' folder in My workspace. Click on:

  • the search name to execute the search again
  • delete to remove the search from your workspace
  • update to update a saved search to an alert.

How to see how many copies/what years of an item we hold

You can see brief details of our holdings in the 'Holdings Notes' in the Details tab. We may hold more than one copy of an item, in different collections.

To see more detailed information, click the 'Item holdings' link on the right of the 'Details' tab. Then click either the 'Details link or the specific year you are interested in, where these links are available.

Using My workspace

With My workspace you can:

  • edit your personal settings
  • keep records of items of interest
  • store records of interest in different folders
  • email/print records you have stored
  • re- run earlier searches in your current session
  • re-run saved searches or alerts.

If you are logged in, records are stored in your workspace until you delete them. Otherwise records are stored until you end your session.

Important information on retaining records in folders

Readers should note that when your Reader Pass expires any information saved in your workspace is automatically deleted. There is no means of reinstating this information. If you have records in your workspace that you wish to keep, you should renew your pass before it expires.

How to order/view items

How to order/view items found in the 'Main catalogue'

The order/view services available depend on the type of material and whether you are registered for any of our services.

Printed items, e.g. books, journals, newspapers, maps, scores.

  • You can pay to order copies of journal articles/book chapters from items in our remote supply collection items with our On Demand, document delivery service.
    To limit your search to items in our remote supply collection, click the drop-down arrow to the right of 'Everything in this catalogue' (alongside the search box) and select 'Remote Supply'. You will need to register for our On Demand service.
  • Readers can order printed items to view in our Reading Rooms. We recommend that you use the catalolgue to order items in advance of your visit and use My Reading Room Requests to check the status of your order before you visit.
    You can request up to 10 items each day. Delivery times vary and are provided at the point of order.
    • In London, delivery can take:
      • up to 70 minutes, for on-site items
      • up to 48 hours for off-site items
      • longer than 48 hours if the item is in our remote supply collection and out on loan to a customer.
    • If you want same day delivery of onsite items, in London, you should make your request before 16.00. We limit delivery of some collections items and resources to particular rooms.
    • In Boston Spa, all items take up to 48 hours to be delivered, or longer if the item is in our remote supply collection and on loan. You should order items before you visit.

Readers who want to order items to their home or office, rather than to a Reading Room, must have registered for our On Demand document supply service. Readers can register for our On Demand service via My Account:

  • log in to My Account with your British Library Online Account credentials.
  • select the ‘Other Services’ tab
  • follow the on-screen instructions.

Once you have registered for On Demand, and found an item you wish to order, click 'Go' to select the 'Deliver item to: My home or office' service.

Online items, e.g. ejournals, ebooks databases, theses, archived websites, research datasets, articles and issues.

  • some online content is available to everyone, anywhere
  • anyone can order copies of items in our remote supply collection with On Demand
  • Readers, using the Library PCs in our Reading Rooms, can also view:
    • subscribed online content
    • non-print legal deposit material.
      Legislation requires that only one person at a time can view any piece of legal deposit content. If another Reader is viewing the item you want to see a message informs you that the item is already in use. Once they have finished with the item and closed it down, you will be able to view it. You cannot reserve non-print legal deposit material.
      The regulations allow you to print these items but only within the “fair dealing” limits: 5% or an article from a journal; 5% or a chapter from a book. The regulations do not permit you to:
      • copy and paste
      • download
      • save this content.

How to request items listed in the Library’s card catalogues

Some of the items we hold are only listed in card catalogues. There are no records for these items in 'Explore the British Library'.

Readers can use 'Explore the British Library' to order these items:

  • log in to 'Explore the British Library'
  • click ‘Request Other Items’ in the navigation bar
  • choose the appropriate collection from the nine presented
  • input details of the item you want on the resulting form
  • choose whether to ‘Request for today’ or ‘Add to basket’
  • complete the requesting process by following the on-screen help.

NB: Some fields on the Collection forms are mandatory; these are marked with an asterisk. More information on completing the forms is available in the on-screen Help.

How to view items found in 'Explore Further'

Many records have the link to the online content in the 'Details' tab; in the 'Link's panel to the right-hand side of the tab.

There may be a note advising that access is ‘for subscribers only’; this content is only available to Readers using our PCs in our Reading Rooms.

Some records have no link to the online content only a link to view the record on the publisher’s website; in some cases the full text is available from the publisher's website.

Some records will have links to online content in the 'I want this' tab. 'View online' services may display for:

    • free online content, available to all
    • subscribed content, only available to Readers using our PCs in our Reading Rooms.

Help with ordering

You can contact our Customer Services team who will order on your behalf. Customer Services are open: 08.30-18.30 Monday - Thursday, 08.30-17.30 Friday and 10.00-16.00 Saturday. 

Tags and notes

To add a tag, or note, to a record, you will need to log in.

To enter more than one tag, separate each term with a comma, e.g. henry viii,tudor England,reformation. This ensures each tag is searchable.

You can search for tags you assigned, as they indexed.

Your tags are visible to other users. They may wish to use the same term to tag items of their own. If you then search for your tag, you may retrieve more items than those you tagged yourself.

Notes are not indexed, so you cannot search for a note as part of the item’s record.

When writing a note, you must agree to the Library’s terms and conditions. One condition is that your name will display next to the note you write. Everyone viewing that record will see your name and note.

We moderate notes posted and will remove any which we deem to be inappropriate.