Manuscripts Reading Room

Readers at desks in the Manuscript Reading Room

The Manuscripts Reading Room is on the second floor. It is the enquiry point for the Library’s western language manuscript collections.

The western manuscript collection includes literary and historical manuscripts, pre-1500 music manuscripts, private papers, manuscript maps, charters, seals, Greek and Latin papyri and Greek ostraca.

Readers should be aware that post-1500 music manuscripts can be viewed in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room. Non–western language manuscripts can be viewed in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room.

To view records of our western manuscripts, you can use our Explore Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue. Please note that not all of our western manuscripts have online catalogue records, but these can be found in the old handwritten and printed catalogues on open access in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

In the Manuscripts Reading Room you can:

  • Find reference material on the open shelves about the British Library’s collection of western manuscripts and those held elsewhere
  • Access online databases and electronic journals and books
  • Order manuscript collection items to the Reading Room via our Explore Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue

You’ll need a Reader Pass for entry to the Reading Rooms.


Some of our manuscripts may require a Letter of Introduction, or may have other Access Conditions.

Reference enquiries

If you need help, ask our Reference Specialists at the Enquiry Desk. They can:

  • Guide you to the most appropriate material for your research
  • Advise you on how to access and use our printed and electronic collections effectively
  • Help you to use our catalogues and answer your bibliographic enquiries
  • Suggest other libraries, archives and institutions that you might find useful in your research, or guide you to relevant websites and free online resources
  • Provide a range of free Reader sessions and 1-2-1 consultations to help you find your way around the collections and to make the best use of them.

If your enquiry requires more specialist help than we can provide we will forward your enquiry to the appropriate person in the British Library or suggest alternative sources.

If you are unable to visit you can contact the Manuscripts Reference Team directly, use the Quick Chat service, or get in touch via Twitter.

Items on shelves in this Reading Room

  • Catalogues and indexes of British Library manuscripts, microfilms and facsimiles
  • Catalogues of manuscripts not held in our collections
  • Editions of manuscripts and collected correspondence
  • Reference material relating to collection items
  • History of manuscript production and palaeography
  • Dictionaries of ancient and modern western languages
  • Records of early government archives and records
  • Ecclesiastical and Bible history
  • British historical sources
  • National biographies
  • Art history and iconography
  • History of English literature and drama
  • British Chronicles
  • Heraldry and peerage


Find papyri

How to identify papyri and request them to the Manuscripts Reading Room

Find charters, rolls and seals

How to find medieval and early modern European charters

Find and request Lord Chamberlain's Plays

How to locate items in our largest single manuscript collection

All Help guides