Guide to Explore Archives and Manuscripts

Opening of Beowulf
Detail from the sole surviving manuscript of Beowulf. England, 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st quarter of the 11th century. Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f 132r.

A guide to help you use the catalogue

This Guide to Explore Archives and Manuscripts covers:

Log in

You do not need to log in to search the catalogue. You need only log in if you have a Reader Pass and you want to request items to a Reading Room.

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

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 Login to see your account details
  • click Change, or Manage Addresses, as appropriate
  • enter your new details and confirm details where requested
  • click Save
  • click Logout 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.:

London Brown

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.:

England NOT London
England OR London
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:

“Capability Brown”
“University of Oxford”

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.

If searching for records in alphabets and abugidas such as Thai, Lao or Khmer, where spaces are not used between words, you need to enter the complete string; e.g. a search for พระมาลัย will find records but a search for มาลัย alone will not.

How to search for people’s names

You can enter them in any order:

  • first name last name, e.g. Ralph Vaughan Williams
  • last name first name, e.g. Williams Ralph Vaughan

You can enter them with or without commas separating the names, or full stops separating initials:

  • Ralph Vaughan, Williams
  • Williams, Ralph Vaughan
  • BS Johnson
  • B.S. Johnson
Please note, however, that spacing between initials does affect the results seen. A search for B S Johnson Archives will not find Reference Add MS 89001 whilst a search for BS Johnson Archives will find Reference Add MS 89001.

If too many records are found, Refine your results by Person Biographies, Family Histories, Institution Histories or Place Names as appropriate.


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

Egerton MS 3038

If you’re not sure, exclude all punctuation:


If you are looking for a specific record, omit the punctuation to narrow down the results.

Note: Don’t “mix and match” punctuation and spaces; no results will be found, e.g. do not enter: IOR L/MAR/B 533D or Egerton MS3038.

If in doubt, use the wildcards.

Advanced search

With Advanced search you can choose specific indexes:

  • Anywhere - searches anywhere in the record
  • Description - searches the description field of the record
  • Name - retrieves Person biographies, and those records containing the name as a related person
  • Place - retrieves Place Name records, and those records containing related place names
  • Subject - use with caution; not all records contain a subject field
  • Reference Code - useful if you've already seen the item and have the reference. Search with either contains or is (exact)
  • Creation date - the date the archive or manuscript was produced.

You can also choose to restrict your search to a particular type of material, e.g. Photographs. To do this select from the Material Type drop-down list.

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

There are a number of ways to limit by date.

With Advanced search, you can combine your search term with the 'Creation Date' index. You can enter the exact year of creation, or use the wildcard ? to search for a decade or the wildcards ** to search for a century, e.g. enter:

  • 176? to search for items created in 1760 and 1769
  • 17** to search for items created between 1700 and 1799
  • 176? OR 177? OR 178? to search for items published between a range of years spanning more than a decade; note that 'OR' must be entered in upper case.

You cannot enter a date range in the format 1770-1800 or 1770->1800.

You can combine your search term with the option to search for a range of dates, using the Start date and End date option, to the right of the Advanced search options. You don’t need to add the day and month; the search will default to a start date of 01 January and an end date of 31 December for each years.

Or you can refine your results by Creation date. You can use the scroll bars at the side of the From and To input boxes, or click in the box and enter a date. Note that the catalogue does not try to match the start or end date of the title; it looks for titles that have any coverage within the date range entered. A refine by Creation date from 1750 to 1799 would not only find records with a date of 1761-1798 but also records with the following dates:

12th century-19th century

Managing your results

How your results are sorted

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

  • relevance - the default sort
  • date-newest - the most recent items are shown first
  • date-oldest - the earliest items are shown first
  • reference - sorts by reference number; the lowest number is listed first.
  • title - sorts alphabetically by title. 

View the full record details

Click, the title, icon or Physical item access link to view the full record. The record’s details display over the results list. There are navigation links: Top, Details, Links, Online access, Physical item, I want this and Send to, to move through the record's details. Use the X to the left to close the full view and return to your results. Use the up and down arrows to view the full record details for the next or previous record in your results list.

Physical item access and Online access

If you click the Physical item access link the full record displays, If the brief record has an Online access link, click this to view the content.

Browse this collection

You will see that some items in your results include a Browse this collection link.

This appears for records that are part of a collection, or archive, that we have catalogued in many levels. Browse this collection allows you to:

  • see how a record you have found fits into an archive or manuscript collection and navigate to other records with the same collection
  • download a PDF version of the collection/archive
  • request an item with the 'More details' link.

Click the Browse this collection link and a new browser window/tab opens. The new tab displays the details of the record on the right. On the left is a hierarchical view of the whole collection. The record that displays on the right is highlighted in blue in the left-hand pane.

The hierarchical view is like a ‘family tree’ view of a whole collection. It shows how a collection has been subdivided and organised. Depending on your search term and the results found you may arrive at the top of the collection tree or lower down the hierarchy. You can navigate to other material within the same collection. Use your mouse and click on the titles or brief descriptions in the left-hand pane. Open and close folders by clicking on bold titles, or the arrows to the left of the folder icons.

To download a PDF version of the catalogue of the collection/archive, you are viewing, click Download finding aid. You will need Adobe Acrobat installed on your PC. Depending on which internet browser you are using, you may be asked if you want to Open or Save the document. Readers should note that you cannot save the document to a Reading Room computer.

It is not possible to request items or to conduct a new search whilst in Browse Collections. To return to your original results list, close the Browse Collections window/tab. or, if you have navigated to an item that you would like to request, click the More details button. The full details view of the record opens, in a new browser window. Click the I want this left-hand link to navigate to the request options for the item.


If your search finds lots of results you may need to Refine your set of results to find items of interest. There are a number of choices available:

  • Availability - you can limit your results to view records for content available online.
  • Description Type - narrows your results to a particular type of record. These include: Person Biographies, Place Names and Institution Histories as well as Archive and Manuscript descriptions.
  • Material Type - use to limit your results to a particular type of material, such as Photographs or Maps and Plans.
  • Creation date - limits your results to a range of dates.
  • Person, Family, Institution - use to limits your results to records concerning a particular person, family or institution. The person could be the creator or the subject of the document.
  • Place - limits your results to documents associated with a specific location.
  • Subject - limits your results to records relating to a particular topic; use with caution, subject indexing is very sparse.
  • Building - useful for the names of buildings that are the subjects of photographs.
  • Language - useful if you're interested in collection items in specific languages.
  • Style - useful for artistic styles; relevant for India Office Prints, Drawings and Paintings.
  • Technique - artistic or photographic techniques.
  • Collections - use to limit your results to a particular collection.
  • Creative work - used for the uniform title of a work.

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

How to print records or save to a social bookmarking site

From a list of results list, for the record you are interested in:

  • click on the three dots to the right of the pin icon, to view the available options
  • click Print, or one of the Social bookmarking sites to save the record.

From the full view of a record:

  • click the left-hand Send to link, to navigate to the available options
  • click Print, or one of the Social bookmarking sites to save the record.

You can also print or save more than one record at a time from My Favourites.

How to save records and searches in My Favourites

All the records you save (or pin) and searches you make in a session are temporarily stored in My Favourites. When you finish your session these records and searches will be deleted.

If you are a Reader you can choose to login and save your records and searches for future sessions. Once logged in:

  • to save a record, click the pin icon to right of the brief details in your results list
  • to save a search, click the Save search link above your results list. A message confirms the search is saved and you can choose to receive notifications.

You can find your saved records and searches in My Favourites.

Using My Favourites

To access My Favourites, once you have logged in as a Reader, click the drop-down arrow to the left of your name and select Saved items or Search history.

With My Favourites you can choose to view: Saved records, Saved searches and your Search history. You can also

  • edit your personal settings
  • view or print saved records, or save them to Social bookmarking sites
  • view your current session’s search query history, delete search queries or save them
  • view your saved searches, set alerts for searches or delete them
  • add labels to saved records, to create your own personal groupings (these are no visible to other users)

If you are logged in, records and saved searches are stored in your Favourites until you delete them.

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

How to request Archive and Manuscript items

The catalogue contains records from a number of collections and there are different ways to access the content:

  • Some records are for content that can be viewed online.
  • Readers can request some content to view in our Reading Room; some items may require you to make an appointment. 
  • Some items are not at an orderable level, for example the catalogue might include a record for a map within an archive. You need to browse the collection hierarchy to see how this item forms part of the collection and to find the orderable item.
  • Records for Person biographies, Family histories, Institution histories and Place Names do not represent collection items and cannot be requested. You should view the links in the full record to find related records.

Some of the manuscripts and archives we hold are only listed in card catalogues. Although there are no records for these items in 'Explore Archives and Manuscripts' Readers can request these items using the Request other items link on the catalogue’s navigation bar.

Readers can request up to 4 archival and manuscript items.Delivery of items can take up to 70 minutes. You need a written letter of introduction or recommendation to order some Western Manuscripts. We deliver on-site items requested before 16.00 on the same day. We limit delivery of some collections items and resources to particular rooms.

To order paper copies, prints and digital images of manuscripts, India Office Records and other unique items, contact our Digitisation Services.

How to order items that can be delivered to a reading room

Readers should log in with their British Library Username and Password.

  • For items found as a result of a search of Explore Archives and Manuscripts:
    • make a note of the alpha-numeric reference/shelfmark; you will need to enter this in the requesting form
    • click Go and a new window opens displaying the requesting form for your item
    • enter the alpha-numeric Reference/Shelfmark into the form
      NB: If the item is in the Maps Collection you can also add Title details and/or more information. If the item is in the Music Collection, you can also add a Name and or Title and/or Year. None of these fields are mandatory.
    • click Request for today or Add to basket.

  • For items listed in card catalogues:
    • click ‘Request Items’ in the navigation bar
    • choose the appropriate collection from the nine presented
    • input details of the item you want on the resulting form
    • click Request for today or Add to basket

If you select Add to basket a message confirms that the item has been added to your basket. You can continue to add more items to your basket, or navigate to your Basket, to request the item; click the Basket link (top right of the screen, next to the Logout button).

To request item(s) in your basket

If you wish to request all items in your Basket for the same date, you can select all items and change the date once.

If you wish to order more than one item in your basket, but want items delivered on different days, you should specify the date required for each item before you select any of the items.

  • click in the check box to select the item(s)
  • check the Date required; the initial date displayed will be for the earliest delivery date possible. If you wish to change the date:
    • click the date displayed
    • use the pop-up calendar, to select the date you require. 
      NB: The date required for items that have a delivery time of 48 or 48+ hours is pre-set for two days from today's date. You can change the date to a later one.
  • select the reading location
  • click Request; a pop-up window confirms whether the request was successful
  • close this pop-up
  • if you don't want to order any more items, please Log out and close all windows.

Please check My Reading Room Requests before you set off to the Library to make sure your items have arrived.

You can have up to 30 items in your Basket at any one time. Items remain in your Basket:

  • until they are requested
  • until you remove them
  • for 90 days, after which they are removed automatically.

NB: Whilst items remain in your basket for up to 90 days they are still available for other people to request.

If you wish to delete items from your Basket, select them using the check box, then click Delete. You will be asked to confirm your deletions.

Help with requesting

You can contact our Customer Services team who will order on your behalf.