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Consulting Western Manuscripts

Most manuscript and archive items held in the Western Manuscripts collections can be seen by anyone with a valid British Library Reader Pass.  A significant number, however, are very valuable and/or fragile.  

If you need to handle our more vulnerable and important Western Manuscript 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typically found in this Special Access (Select) category include medieval literary and illuminated items, important historical documents and works by famous or important authors.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’.

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 us for further advice.

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.  Note also that 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.

Who should I get to supply me with a letter and what form should it 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, on headed paper and addressed to the Reference Manager, Manuscripts Reading Room, British Library.  We cannot therefore accept emails, but the letter can be sent in as a scanned attachment with an email message.

What information should the letter contain?

  • 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.

How can I get the letter to the British Library?

We recommend that you bring the letter with you to the Manuscript Reading Room 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 mss@bl.uk.

Why do we ask for a letter?

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 Western Manuscripts 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.

If you require further information please contact us.

Contact

Manuscripts and Maps Reference Team
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7513 / 7702
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7745

E-mail: Ask the Reference Team