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’ (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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’