Turning over New Leaves: How to make a successful manuscript visit

I’m sitting in Los Angeles in the middle of a sojourn to The Huntington Library. It has a world-renowned collection, ranging from European medieval manuscripts, to medical collections, to historical items relating to the American Southwest. It also has one of the most beautiful botanical gardens I have ever set my eyes upon. I will be peppering this post with visual dispatches from this haven of tranquility. It is rare that a medievalist can sit back and relax amongst exotic ornamental plants, skittering lizards and greedy squirrels whilst resting her eyes from manuscript study!

Since I am visiting an unfamiliar library, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned about how to plan a productive journey to new codicological climes. Trips overseas can be especially daunting, but much of what I write is applicable to visits to new libraries on home turf too.

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The Munger Research Center, home of The Huntington’s manuscript reading room…

Plan your visit

This might seem obvious, but I tagged my library time – rather thoughtlessly – on to the end of a research trip to San Francisco. I booked the airplane tickets, then contacted the library afterwards. This was bad. The automated reply I initially received made it clear that I’d been lucky with my choice of dates – for a few days in April, rare materials would be completely unavailable to readers. When I spent a year researching at the British Library, there were two whole months when the rarest manuscripts were completely out of bounds, due to storage re-organization. It’s always a good idea to email the manuscript librarian in advance, letting them know which manuscripts you wish to see, to ensure that you are choosing a good time to come.

      If you are visiting certain libraries – such as the Huntington –  you’ll have to schedule an appointment to register as a reader. Other libraries, such as the BL, allow you to just walk up – but make sure to plan enough time, especially in busy vacation periods when everyone stops teaching and goes to look at manuscripts. Some librarians require a letter of introduction from a supervisor or colleague before you can get your paws anywhere near precious material. Yes, this even applies to established academics. I once overheard a professor becoming irate because he was asked for a letter of recommendation. But the librarians need reassurance that you really need to – or indeed are responsible enough to – touch potentially fragile material.

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Some of gorgeous flowers of The Huntington Botanical Gardens

Bring what you need

Don’t forget to take the relevant ID with you. This usually involves your passport/driving licence and proof of address, which usually has to be a bill or bank statement issued within the last three months. Most library websites tell you what to bring, but if not, send them an email to check. When I was registering at the British Library, there was a woman in front of me who had brought a year-old utility bill, which was invalid. This is disastrous if you’re only visiting for a couple of days! Don’t forget a pencil and paper if you need it – sounds silly, but I always forget a pencil. Also, take photocopies/pdfs of secondary material that you will need (wi-fi is not always available).

Assess the room

Every manuscript reading room has different policies. For example, in the British Library, you just take a seat, make a note of the seat number, then wander up to the desk to get your books. At the Oxford colleges, the college librarian might take you firmly in hand and tell you exactly where to sit and what to do – they are usually expecting you. In the Huntington, you have to report to the reading room supervisor first, who assigns you a desk and passes you your books.

       In the British Library, cameras are a massive no-no. In the Huntington, they are welcomed – though you have to book a photography desk, and your camera has to have a completely silent mode. In some Oxford colleges, you can fill in photography permission slips on the day. It’s best to go straight to the person on the desk and ask them what to do and where – it saves time, embarrassment, and helps to avoid a faux pas (such as using the wrong book rests, or sitting at the incorrect desk). If you are a novice at handling books, just ask for help – it’s fairer on the books, and avoids that awkward moment when a librarian corrects you in front of every eminent scholar in the room (“earth … swallow me up now”).

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The evening view, as the library closes…

Prepare to feel agitated

I think I am a fairly even-tempered person. However, I have become extremely prickly whilst working in manuscript rooms. You tend to go for long periods of time without water. You’re usually under time pressure. You’re nervous and excited about what you want to achieve. Your eyes hurt. You would just love a coffee, but you have to get a train in two hours. That person is tapping too loud into their laptop. That other person keeps coughing. Or YOU keep coughing, and your throat hurts from trying to stifle it. It can be extremely frustrating if the manuscript you needed is being consulted by someone else, or if the ordering system is not working for you. Or the wireless is down. What might be fine at your home library, where you could just go to bed and come back tomorrow, is unbearable when you are visiting only for a day.

       My advice is to take yourself out of the reading room if you feel even remotely annoyed, and give yourself a good talking to. Put things into perspective. Give yourself a break and eat some food, go out and drink water. It might seem like a drag, to lose half an hour’s work, but you’ll gain a lot in productivity when you get back. There is a reason why the customer service desks at the British Library have stern warnings against abuse towards staff. I remember thinking ‘wow, are those notices really necessary?’, then over the course of a year I witnessed several people being unreasonable. Not being abusive, per se, but just being rude – behaving in ways that they would not, given adequate caffeine and rest. When you’ve been sitting there for five hours straight, it seems like your work is the most important thing in the world – when it isn’t, really.

Enjoy

Take a deep breath, look at that manuscript again and remember why you got into this in the first place. For me, it was fascination. That manuscript was written by a real person, a real hand, real fingers, over six HUNDRED years ago. It’s easy to forget that when you’re hunting for medieval anglicana letter forms or analysing an author’s use of personal pronouns. Check out which of your dispersed group of academic friends are in the area, and look them up for coffee. Exchange pleasantries with the security guards (the guards at the Huntington Library are SO lovely, they really made my visit wonderful). Peruse the exhibition in the front lobby. Have fun!

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2 comments

  1. Ellie Bird · · Reply

    I will be taking this with me on my archive hunt to Nova Scotia as moral support, researching original material is an absolute highlight of my research but I completely relate to what you say about managing frustrations and tiredness in the archive-room, thanks for your honesty and tips.

  2. Great post! Truly I will take it with me for my next library trip. Thanks a lot for sharing.

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