A Week at the British Library

This week I’ve been on a research trip to London.* I thought I’d finished with primary research, but when I wrote the outline for an upcoming chapter back in May I realised that some vital information was missing. I applied for SGSAH Student Development Funding, and was awarded funds to visit the British Library to study some material not available to me in Scotland. I’ve never been to the British Library before, so this was a wonderful opportunity to spend time at this incredible institution whilst filling some thesis gaps!

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Arriving at the British Library

As many of you will know, the British Library is pretty incredible. Having never used it before as a reader, however, it seems quite intimidating. Library anxiety (see also: archive anxiety) is real, and I had about twelve freak-outs before leaving for London about whether I had the right kinds of ID, if my material would arrive on time, where I would be able to eat lunch, and how many pencils to take. Though very big, the BL was in fact an easy, comfortable and exciting place to work. A few handy tips if you are planning a trip anytime soon:

  • To register you will need proof of your address and proof of your signature, as well as proof of your student status if relevant. Each of these things needs to be a separate document. Find out more here.
  • Some material takes 48 hours to order in. Because I only had a short time I called ahead and they pre-ordered it in for me. Definitely worth checking if you are visiting for a few days only!
  • There are tonnes of places to eat lunch in and around the BL! (And where I was working in the newsroom, you could leave material on your desk for around an hour while you went for your lunch)
  • It is worth arriving early in the day. The newsroom never completely filled up but I know other rooms do get full. The library opens at 9.30 and there was a large queue to get in everyday I was there.
  • You can’t take bags larger than carry on luggage for an aeroplane into the library.
  • My reading room essentials: a scarf or jumper (to save a seat, or keep you warm when the aircon is on!), two pencils, a notebook, laptop or ipad (I take notes on Evernote so that they are word searchable), a phone or camera to take photos, a USB stick (for digital scans), change (for scanning or copying costs), your reader pass!


My PhD looks at women’s fashion during the First World War, and most of my PhD research is based around garments and women’s magazines from the time. The magazines are full of information, but often biased due to the commercial nature of the publications. I set out on my trip to the BL with the aim of understanding the workings of the fashion and textile industries from the inside; going back up the production chain to find information on prices, availability of fabrics and how the war impacted on the industry. I made a huge list of material to view before arriving at the library and actually managed to work my way through a decent number of tailoring and textile trade journals. Every now and again I’d turn a fragile, yellowing page to find a headline that related to my research so perfectly I couldn’t help but squeal with excitement. Library anxiety is real, but so is library-discovery-joy.

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Some of the material I worked through during my visit, all belonging to the British Library 

Another imbalance in my research that I wanted to address was the bias towards elite magazines. The National Library of Scotland collection mostly holds women’s magazines (from my period) that represent middle and upper class women, such as The Queen and The Gentlewoman. So while I was at the BL I also looked through volumes of various ‘penny weeklies’, cheap magazines that were aimed more at lower middle class and working women. It was so fascinating to look through them and note the parallels and differences in the content, particularly within the fashion commentary. I really want my thesis to represent as many women, from as many different economic backgrounds, as possible — so this was a really important task for me.

Three and half days at the library flew past, and though I would have liked more time, I managed to answer all my key questions. I also took a few hours off to pay a visit to the newly re-developed National Army Museum, which I have been wanting to visit for months. It was so great to see what they have done; a really innovative and refreshing take on what military history can do. It was also good for my brain to take a step away from the trade journals – I certainly recommend a mid-week change of scene if you have a long library or archive trip coming up!

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The view from where I stayed. Not bad London. 

I am over the moon with the discoveries I made this week, but most of all I am surprised by how much I enjoyed myself. I have lived in London in the past and I don’t relish visits (too busy, too many people, too stressful) but because of my funding I got to stay really near the library and minimise daily travel time. I was full of anxiety about so many parts of the trip, but working in the library felt so stimulating. The newsroom had a great, relaxed atmosphere, and I just wish I could go and work there every day. (I also really wanted to walk around and ask everyone else what they were working on!) Most of all, the material was just amazing and I found more than I could have possibly hoped!

A little video I made of a day at the British Library! 


*Hence the odd scheduling of posts, apologies! Back to normal next week.

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