British Library Day Seven: The Basement and Maps and Manuscripts


I got in this morning a bit too early for my session, and so did a bit of spreadsheet work for Lynn before it was time to go down to one of the basements. The spreadsheet was tracking physical reader numbers over the month and I just had to copy data, but it was good to learn that the library keeps track of these things. At 9.45 Lynn took me downstairs to meet Vince, who was going to look after me in basement 2. I got signed in (because it is a special area so they need records for security, and for fire safety). The basement is perhaps even more maze-like than the offices.

We got straight onto business, since there was a stack of requests currently printing out. Most of the requests were for the rare books reading rooms, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you how to navigate between the different storage pens as the whole area is somewhat maze-like to a beginner like me, but once you are in the general area the process is pretty straight forward. I still felt incredibly slow when I was allowed to retrieve items (both then and later) but this is mostly due to Vincent and the workers being so familiar with the collection they can tell how far down a compactus shelf an item number is going to be without even looking.

In case I haven’t mentioned the ordering process before, when a reader orders an item to look at, a ticket is printed in two parts. In St Pancras, these tickets are received in the appropriate basement, and sorted by staff according to general location in order to streamline retrieval. They also print out in alphanumeric order.  The first part of the ticket is placed in an orange sleeve, and this will replace the item on the shelf so it is easy to see when things are out; and the second part of the ticket is placed inside the item when it is retrieved to act as a marker and tracking device.

So we went up and down the compactus (compacti?), finding shelfmarks and checking items. When there was more than one item in a volume, we had to check that the item the slip indicated was actually in there before taking it for the reader. When the item was boxed we had to indicate on both tickets that it was boxed, and how many items were in it as the single item is not removed. This just makes it easier for items to stay together, and to know if something has gone missing.

One item was for the social science reading room, and unrestricted, so it could be sent via the mechanical delivery system. I was allowed to scan the item, put it in the tray and send it off (which involved scanning the tray, scanning the barcode for the destination, and pushing it onto the conveyor belt). The rest of the items had pink slips, meaning they were more restricted items, and we delivered them to the rare books room by hand (or by trolley, really) after scanning them to tell the system they were in transit. When we arrived at the reading room we scanned the items again to confirm their arrival, and placed them in the correct areas for patron pick up at the referral desk etc. The item will get scanned again when the patron picks it up, and when it needs to be returned.

After we had gotten on top of the morning rush, Vincent gave me a little show and tell of some of the treasures: a Ming dynasty bank-note; early oracle bones with tiny etchings; a Chinese costume book; a metal prayer hanger thing; some rifles (he mentioned swords but I didn’t get to see them, which is a shame because I like swords); some of the original Dickens serials; some tiny books, including a prayer book the size of my thumbnail, and another with a snake or double spine; a Hamlet folio which is one of only two copies in the world of this version, and which the original buyer had attached a note to, having bought it for £120 in 1850; Beethoven’s 5th symphony, and much more. It was pretty great.

After this fantastic display, I retrieved some more items with another worker, and went for lunch. I am really impressed with how much hard work the basement jobs are, physically, however  I could see myself getting bored with the routine if doing it year in and out.

After lunch, I was taken to shadow in the Maps and Manuscripts reading rooms (though the departments have merged in this last 12 months, the physical locations remain separate). The woman who was supposed to be my host had a meeting, so her colleague Carlos gave me a tour (and I also observed him helping a customer print from microfiche).

Some of the electronic maps I was shown are quite impressive, and the one most commonly used (which I can’t remember the name of now, and can’t find on the catalogue) dates from 1998. All of the older maps are on paper or microfiche. I won’t describe the collection too much, but it is incredibly detailed, with maps from all over the world. Understandably though the largest collections are UK and Irish.

Maps are probably the hardest things for patron to order, with most of them needing a reference from a print map-index or cross-reference (kind of like Melways references). This means they have to call up and engage in a hopefully profitable query, or come into the library, look up what they need and then order it. Of course, if the map needed is being held at Boston Spa then they will have to come back again to look at it. I can imagine this being quite frustrating.

The maps reading room wasn’t all that busy when I was there, and after the tour I was taken down to Manuscripts, which was superbly busy. I forget the manager’s name down there, but he was busy when we got down there with a customer, so the woman who took me down explained a bit about the collection, and the restrictions which can be imposed on different categories of items.

Manuscripts have a large open collection, however there are also three categories of restrictions they have for items. I can’t actually remember the different requirements for each, but the top level is very rare to get past, and is applied to extremely important, or ‘named’ objects, such as ‘the Gutenberg Bible’. We talked about the difficulties which arise in this collection in particular because the catalogue doesn’t (or didn’t, I got differing information about this) inform patrons when the items they were trying to order were one of those restricted items and the patron would turn up, expecting to see the original, and in most cases then be told it isn’t possible.

From what the manager was saying, most of the manuscripts collection is correspondence and similar items – from treatises, to author emails. All of what is at St Pancras (perhaps the whole collection) is located above ground instead of in the basement, due to worry about flooding. I can’t help but wonder why they aren’t worried about that for the other items in the basement, since they have quite rare items down there, but didn’t think to ask at the time. Perhaps it is easier to salvage the formats of the basement materials (varied though they may be).

Since the reading room was so busy, I only got to stay about half an hour as no-one had time to supervise me. A little disappointing, but I completely understood, and spent the remainder of the afternoon doing more office work for the science team, and filling in my journal.


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