As the worldwide coronavirus lockdown comes to an end, in Britain at least, libraries and archives are opening again. The British Library will see limited opening from July 22, and the National Archives from the day before. Things will be slightly different from before though.
The National Archives was originally known as the Public Record Office. In 2003, it was merged with the Historical Manuscripts Commission and the entire operation moved to the existing building at Kew. The Public Record Office annexe at Chancery Lane and later the Family Records Centre at Myddelton Street were also moved there.
The two institutions operate under entirely different rules. The National Archives is literally a public record office. Until recently, anyone could turn up with ID from anywhere in the world and be issued a reader’s ticket, although it was always sensible to plan a visit in advance. The British Library isn’t a public library, and admittance to the reading rooms is restricted, although admittance to its galleries, shops and cafeteria are open to all.
During the lockdown, the British Library extended the use of certain databases that were usually accessible only from the reading rooms to registered readers for them to access from home. The National Archives went one better. Any digitised document can now be downloaded for free by anyone. Simply sign up for an on-line account after which you will be permitted to download up to fifty records in thirty days. According to the latest media release, this free service will continue after the reopening.
Regular readers are though warned things will be very different when it reopens. For one thing, there will be limited access to parts of the building. All visits will need to be pre-booked, and there will be no ordering documents on the day. The document delivery service will alter, there will be a one-way system in the building, and documents will be subjected to quarantining – whatever is meant by that.
The British Library was based at Bloomsbury, principally in the spectacular Round Reading Room until 1997. Pictured above is the seat used by Karl Marx.
There was also BLISS – near the main building; annexes at Aldwych and Holborn, the India Office south of the Thames, the Sound Archive at Kensington, and the Newspaper Library at Colindale.
All these were absorbed into the new site at Kings Cross, the sole off-site reading room being the one at its massive Boston Spa complex in Yorkshire where a great deal of material is stored. This reading room is open office hours only, unlike the main reading rooms which are open six days a week with late opening four days, although that may change soon.
For those not privileged enough to live within easy travelling distance of these two great institutions, the good news is that the quantity of research material available for free on-line has never been greater. The Internet Archive has research material in all available formats, while the Australian national library known as Trove has an excellent collection of especially newspapers, even if it has recently made some horrible alterations to its interface. A few of the world’s great libraries can be found here.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.