British Library Day Eight: Asian and African Studies and Social Sciences


I started today in the Asian and African reading room. Lynn wasn’t there in the morning so I made the executive decision to take myself down, and when Paul went past I asked him which floor the room was on. He kindly took me down there. Hedley, the manager of the reading room, showed me around. The room is small compared to some of the others, with only 90 seats (though I think the maps room might be smaller) and it is long and skinny. Another thing differentiating the Asian and African reading room from the others is the presence of art and ephemera in the room. There are portraits  on the walls ,and ornamental boxes, as well as model ships (yay, ships!).

Along with a large Oriental collection, and a smaller African component (they started writing things a lot later) the reading room is also notable for being host to the East India Company records. This collection is huge, and has 150 name indexes just to help navigate the baptism, marriage and funeral records. Even with 14km of shelf space, the entire collection is still only a small part of the reading room holdings, but one which attracts a lot of attention.

A fair portion of patrons come to the reading room for family history, looking up relatives who had been in India or Africa. After I told Hedley one of the reasons Lynn had put me in the reading room was because I’d had no experience with genealogy and wanted to do a bit, he helped me run a pretend search. We picked one of the indexes, and looked up my last name, coming across a baby boy baptised in 1903, probably no relation to me but interesting anyway. From there we took the reference number and bought out the appropriate microfilm to have a look at. Patrons can print these microfilms, and request printing of other records as well, depending on copyright – though it does cost them. So that was pretty cool, as with being offered to look at an ancestor’s place of living in the maps room yesterday, I wish I knew more of my family history so I could request this stuff. Mum was supposed to tell me before I left but she never did, and I wasn’t interested enough to go digging until I was already over here surrounded by ‘what ifs’.

Hedley also showed me the reading room’s still functioning card catalogue, which is slowly being moved to digital records. This is made more difficult because of the number of foreign language records they hold. Indeed, the parts of the reading room not dedicated to the EIC are laid out in country and language groups, and the reference team regularly has to consult with translators and special curators to find items.

The reading room has its own copy centre, which is also used for viewing bulky and invigilated items, as well as photographs. Viewing is by appointment only, and photographs are suggested to be ordered at least 24 hours in advance so they can adjust to room temperature after being in climate controlled storage.

This is one of the busiest reading rooms in the library, and in 2012 fielded more enquires than any other department (as noted in the tracking software which needs to be updated with every query). I was placed with Catherine for the rest of the morning. Usually working in cataloguing, since the department is short staffed she and a few of her fellow cataloguers help out once a month (each) on the reference desk. So, in a way she was a trainee herself. This meant that perhaps I didn’t get to see as much, but the queries we received were complex, and like I would do in the same situation, Catherine asked for help from others when she needed it.

The first face-to-face patron we had actually had to be sent across to humanities, because she was looking for an artist, with no idea of nationality, marriage status etc, so it was unlikely the collection in Asia and Africa would help her. In humanities they have artist registers which would probably be of more use. Most of the other queries were pretty standard and ordering enquiries (though we did have to look in one of the large indexes and employ someone else’s help to determine which one).

Two queries were notable, however. The first was from a young woman writing her dissertation, and she wanted to know if there was an expert she could talk to about one of the resources she was thinking about using. The item was an edited transcript of an interview/confession, and the lady was concerned about the authenticity not of the item itself, but of the transcript. She worried that the editor might have taken too many liberties when publishing the transcript. Catherine called Hedley and asked if there was anyone in particular how might be able to help. After looking this person up in the directory, the young woman was put on the phone with the expert. Sadly, this did not help, but it was a good idea.

The second particularly interesting query was about an order which had failed, and try as she might, Catherine couldn’t even find it in the system so called the curator. This was an Erdu manuscript, with a title not in English so could only be searched for by shelf mark – a shelf mark which the catalogue would not return anything on. The curator came down and it turned out she and the scholar knew mutual people and were happy to meet. The actual solution to the problem was simple; merely needing to confirm it was a manuscript a second time by adding MSS to the front of the shelf mark. It is worth noting that this went through a different ordering system to the main catalogue however, and that even afterward we could not make the main catalogue entry come up.

I directly helped with one of the last queries of the morning, when some people were having trouble upgrading their accounts on their laptop. At first it appeared to be working when they bought it up but then said they weren’t authorised to complete the form. In lieu of knowing how to fix a problem without calling customer service, I suggested trying it on one of the computer terminals, having heard about the dodgy library wifi. They didn’t return, so we assumed it worked when they took that suggestion, and Lynn later said it was a good idea for me to suggest it.

I’d discovered mould on my bread in the morning, and so had to get lunch from the staff cafeteria. It was an ordeal, let’s leave it at that. After lunch, I was collected from my desk by Suzanne from Social Science and we went down to the reading room. She had a quick errand to run, so I lurked awkwardly in the background for a few minutes, but we then commenced a tour of the area.

Technically titled Social Sciences and Official Papers, the reading room holds a vast range of items. Some of the social science items include material on human resources, anthropology, education, health care, business user statistics, non-clinical psychology and so on, and so forth. The collection overlaps with some others, and really it is the focus which defines where it goes. Hard science or soft, patents or business theories, etc. The reading room also has a large law component, and as well as lawyers using the databases (which are too expensive for some firms) many of the patrons are looking for information because they are representing themselves in court. This is a bit fraught, and the reference team has to be careful to show people information without being seen to give advice.

The official publications  in the reading room are anything published by the government. This includes reports, bills and acts, debates, house of commons agendas, electoral roles (and everyone asked about Australia’s voting being compulsory when this came up). The reading room contains information both on the UK and abroad. The reading room has also absorbed the births deaths and marriages indexes, which supply the patron with a number they can use to order and pay for a copy of a document from the official register.

After the tour, I shadowed Ian for the rest of the day. It was pretty quiet, aside from one or two order enquiries. Speaking of which, they do paper orders in the Social Science reading room, and fax the order down to the basement or to Boston Spa. I can’t quite remember why this is, but it was interesting and I watched a few forms being filled out.

Ian showed me a few of the more commonly used databases, and we chatted about my impressions of the library, and the ousting of Julia Gillard form the Prime Ministership (the second time I’d done so that day, so it’s lucky I had a vague opinion to share). We briefly tried to look up some legislation for my presentation, but I really didn’t have enough information about what I was looking for.

Then, after helping a final patron with searching for something to be ordered for the next day (ordering stops after 4pm) it was time to leave.

I must say, I like this half hour morning tea, hour lunch, half hour afternoon tea thing; much better than I get at work now. But I was tired during the afternoon and almost fell asleep during that break.


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