Getting your hands on some vellum…

I’ve recently celebrated my 200th anniversary. That is, in the course of the last eight months, I have got my paws on two hundred medieval and early modern manuscripts in the British Library. And, oh, what a privilege it has been. Even after seeing so many ‘in the vellum’, every one is still special. But as more and more manuscripts are digitised, what is the future for manuscript research?If I were doing this research in a year’s time, or two, or five, would I get to see any primary material? Would it matter if I did or not?

The spheres of WordPress and Twitter have been rumbling with impassioned discussions since A.S.G Edwards published this article, which asks ‘what do we lose when we replace access to manuscripts with digitisation?’ I’m not going throw in my two penneth worth in the discussion of the pros and cons of digitisation. Instead, I am going to share some of my practical experiences of access to manuscripts – actual vellum or paper books – in the British Library. My reasoning behind this is to demystify what can be quite an intimidating experience, and to shed a little more light on what can be accessed. To give just a hint of my findings, for the most part, the manuscript room has not been a place where I have had to fight to see original material.

There are four main types of manuscript material in the British Library:

1) ‘Normal’ Manuscripts

2) Select Manuscripts

3) Restricted Manuscripts

4) Manuscripts on display/in conservation

Looking at the list of two hundred manuscripts that I have requested so far, around 60% have fallen into the first category. The ‘Normal Manuscript’ category consists of very valuable material that has no restrictions upon it. As it is very valuable, you still have to have a library card, which requires some pre-planning. My advice is to allow plenty of time for the process when you arrive at the library, and do as much as you can through the online pre-registration process here. You will also conduct your research on this material within the controlled environment of the Manuscript Reading Room, under the vigilant eyes of the librarians and security staff. Provided you have registered for a reader card and are willing to treat the books with respect, gaining access to material in category 1) is very straightforward.

However, the major difficulty with the BL’s system is that it is not easy to tell what material is a ‘Normal Manuscript’ and what falls into the second category: 2) Select Manuscripts. Around 30% of the manuscripts that I have seen have fallen into this category. Select manuscripts are available to view ‘in the vellum’, but because they are judged to be of a higher grade of value, access to them is more carefully controlled. This means that, in addition to having a library card, you also have to have a letter from someone in a position of responsibility connected to your research (your supervisor, a senior academic etc) to support your request. Once you have provided this, there is no problem accessing this material. My advice is to either email one of the manuscript librarians to check if your manuscript is a ‘select’ (, or else just ask your supervisor for a letter just in case. Either way, it is best to clarify what is needed before you visit, because I have seen loads of people disappointed because they’ve traveled overseas to view material and have been denied it for procedural reasons.

So, because I had taken care of all of the bureaucratic stuff, I have been able to consult 90% of my manuscripts with absolutely no problems at all. However, around 10% have fallen into one of the latter two categories: 3) Restricted Manuscripts or 4) Manuscripts on display/in conservation. If you are working on highly-illuminated material, unique copies of texts (such as Cotton Nero A.x: the Gawain and the Green Knight manuscript), or extremely damaged material, it is likely that your source will be a restricted manuscript. Because a decision has been made to restrict access to these manuscripts, you will be offered a ‘surrogate’ by default. This may be a wonderfully detailed, colour, high-resolution digital facsimile such as the one of the Gawain manuscript here. It might be a printed facsimile. Or, most likely, it will be a microfilm. Though microfilms are annoying, fiddly, and I hate them, they are sufficient for most of my transcription work. However, if you can show the librarians that it has not been possible to do your research using the microfilm, you can apply to see the original. Yes, it is annoying, but it is possible. When I have spoken to librarians at the BL, they have never indicated that this material is unavailable – they have simply stressed that I need to have a good reason to see it. Oh, and if your manuscript is in the fourth category – 4) Manuscripts on display/in conservation – tough luck, you’ll have to wait, I suppose! Luckily, only one manuscript that I have requested has fallen into this category.

So, in the course of eight months, I have been denied around 20 manuscripts out of 200 upon my first request. In these cases, I have either looked at the surrogate, or moved on to the next manuscript on my list (time is of the essence).  I am confident that, had I really needed to see these manuscripts, I could have put together a good case to the librarians. In my experience, I have found that material is not in the ‘Restricted Manuscripts’ category because it has been digitised. In most cases it has been digitised because it is valuable, interesting, culturally-significant – and it is because of this value that it is restricted. I have found that, if you are willing to put in the effort to plan your trip to see manuscripts (and why not? Seeing 600 year old manuscripts is a privilege), then the BL offers rich opportunities to do research on books ‘in the vellum’



  1. This is something that worries me. Because I work so much on manuscripts, in my first year of my PhD, I simply ordered every manuscript in the Bodleian written between 1300 and 1500. And it was a huge privilege, but also I learned an enormous amount.

    However, I have found I had issues with manuscripts that had been digitized. The problem is, within a PhD, you are unlikely to be able to wait for the convenience of publishers – things may have been digitized or edited, but not published! So I ended up changing the focus of some of my work. This may not matter as a one-off, but cumulatively, I think it does matter.

    I’d be interested to hear what you think about digital photos and copyright, which I guess is a related question.

    1. Hmmn, can I clarify Lucy – do you mean that you had difficulty accessing manuscripts, or accessing published facsimiles? It is a pity to alter the course of your research because of difficulty accessing materials. I had the problem that none of the material that I used for my Ph.D had been published as a facsimile or digitised online and had to commission special microfilms to be made (which cost around £50 – not bad!). In this case, the facsimile saved my research, as I could not have afforded to make constant trips from York to Oxford, where the material was being held.

      I suppose the nature of research requires us to be flexible to a certain extent. However, I am all for making research as achievable as it possibly can be!

    2. I kind of sympathize Lucy… Although on the other hand I am really glad that more things are being digitized by the Bod now, provided that digital copy is itself accessible.
      When I did my MSt I worked extensively on a single MS of Irish saints’ lives, and I became worried that all the opening and handling I was doing of a particular set of folios was going to do damage. I asked for the pages I most needed to be copied or photographed so I could do the bulk of my work from them, and just go to the MS itself if UV or different angles were needed, but there weren’t the resources (plus this was quite a while ago before these things were really ‘accepted’ in certain academic circles). Then – a story I’ve told many times – shortly before I planned to hand in, I went in to check one or two odd readings, called up the MS to Duke Humphrey’s, and went over the road to have a coffee and read my draft while I waited. Around half an hour later, the most enormous and sudden thunder storm arrived over Broad St, and flooded DH through a window beside the MS collection area which had been left open because of the heat. No one was allowed back in, and I had to hand in my dissertation without knowing if the MS had arrived in the reading room in time to be water damaged! I really hope not, but I did feel guilty for not having pushed harder for a replica to be made for daily use…

  2. P.S. I like the new layout Debs!

  3. Sorry to be unclear. I mean, they thought the fact that there was at some stage going to be a lovely all-singing-all-dancing facsimile meant I didn’t need to see the manuscript. My issue was, I couldn’t wait that long.

    I think facsimiles are brilliant and I love to see manuscripts digitized. But it does take them out of circulation for a while, inevitably. It’s a pain that I suspect just when people are getting exciting about a particular kind of manuscript is the natural time both for publishers to want to make a facsimile, and for everyone else to want to see the manuscript.

    Kathleen, that’s awful.

  4. Oh Lucy – that is really annoying, I do not think that libraries should deny access to manuscripts for long periods because a facsimile is coming ‘soon’! I think my point with this post was that out of 200 manuscripts, only a small percentage were affected by any kind of access restrictions. However, sods law means that it will be the manuscript that YOU need that will be out of access 😉 Kathleen – what a story. Despite its history, the DH is not the ideal place for manuscript study in terms of working conditions!

  5. Oh, yes, I was just moaning a little, sorry! 😀

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