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, covering: login, search, how to manage your results, how to browse the collections and how to request items

Published date:

This Guide to Explore Archives and Manuscripts covers:

Browser requirements

Explore Archives and Manuscripts 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 to a Reading Room.

If you do log in you 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 login 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 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

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

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:


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.

More information on Reference prefixes is available. 

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
  • In user tags - If a tag has been used before, you can search for it by using this field. However, this search will only retrieve those items which contain the term in user tags (nowhere else in the record).

You can also choose to restrict you 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 two means of limiting by date.

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

  • 176? to search for items created in 760 and 1769
  • enter 17?? to search for items created between 1700 and 1799

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?

Note that 'OR' must be entered in upper case. You cannot enter a date range in the format 1770-1800 or 1770->1800.

The second method is to limit by 'Start Date' and 'End Date'. You should 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.

So a search limited by: 'Start Date' 1750 and 'End Date' 1799 would not only find Add MS 88906/4/2 : 1761-1798 but also:

Add MS 62943 : 1100-1979
Add MS 32343 A-G : 12th century-19th century
Add MS 62711 : c1680-1879
Add MS 50261 : 1761-1910

Browse this collection

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

This tab only appears for results 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 tab 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.

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 tab for instructions on requesting, or refer to How to Request Archives and Manuscript Items.

Managing your results

If your search finds lots of results, and you cannot find the record of the item you want, you may need to Refine your set of results. There are a number of choices available:

  • Description Type - narrows your search 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 of photograph techniques.
  • Collections - use to limit your results to a particular collection.
  • Creative work - used for the uniform title of a work.
  • Technique - limits you results to a particular description, e.g. series (group of related records) or item (individual item).

The Refine options available 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, but you will often have the option to expand the list for each one or to select more than one term by selecting to ‘Refine further’.

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
  • Title - sorts alphabetically by title
  • Reference - sorts by reference number; the lowest number is listed first.

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 sort by title. To clear the index, click 'Explore Home'.

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 you can choose to save your searches; you must login 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.

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.

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 request Archive and Manuscript items

Readers can request items in the archive and manuscript collections to view in our Reading Room. How you request items depends on which Collection Area the item you want belongs to.

Readers can request up to 4 archival and manuscript items. You need a written letter of introduction or recommendation to order some Western Manuscripts. Delivery of items can take up to 70 minutes. 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.

Reader can track the status of requests with My Reading Room Requests.

With Imaging Services you can order paper copies, prints and digital images of manuscripts, India Office Records and other unique items.

Help with requesting

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.

Collection guides

Manuscript maps

Cartography from the Middle Ages to the present

Royal manuscripts

Manuscripts collected by English sovereigns from Edward IV onwards


A wide-ranging collection of fine and historic bindings

King’s manuscripts

Medieval and post-medieval manuscripts and topographical material

Sale catalogues

An essential resource for provenance research

Western illuminated manuscripts

Approximately 9,000 manuscripts with decoration or illumination

Music manuscripts and archives

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

Medieval and early modern British historical manuscripts

Sources for British history before 1600

Burney manuscripts

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

Arundel manuscripts

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

Harley manuscripts

Manuscripts, charters, and rolls collected by the Harley family

Classical Latin manuscripts

Manuscripts of Latin authors from before 600

Lansdowne manuscripts

A collection of modern political papers and material relating to topography and heraldry

Hebrew collections

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

Medieval and early modern British literary manuscripts

Sources for British literature before 1600