Last week, courtesy of jay Dixon, members of the RNA had a chance to go on a guided tour of the British Library at St Pancras in London. Yes, we had to pay (tours for groups cost £70), but when the fee was divided up among us all, it didn’t come to much. And it was absolutely fascinating. We had a chance to find out what material the BL had and how it worked, to see all the public areas, to peer through the glass doors into the various reading rooms, and even to get a quick look behind the scenes to find out how the books are brought up from the storage areas on computer-controlled conveyors.
I’d visited before, but only the public areas. The displays there are incredibly interesting and are worth a visit on their own. (Among other things, they've got a lot of Mozart manuscripts on display at the moment.) There’s also a café and restaurant which make good places to meet friends or business contacts.
I had assumed that I’d have to jump through all sorts of hoops to get a reader’s ticket, including proving that only the BL had the information I needed to research, and that it couldn’t be found in other libraries, such as the London Library. I think it may have been like that once upon a time, but it certainly isn’t so now.
In fact, the BL staff couldn’t be more encouraging, especially to published authors. I filled in a form online in the admissions office, with all the usual personal stuff, plus information about the libraries I already used and the areas of research I wanted to pursue. I thought they might want that information so they could vet me, or tell me to go elsewhere. Quite wrong. It was so that they could be helpful in telling me precisely which BL collections I’d want to consult and the best way to go about it. And in the space of less than 15 minutes, I got the magic reader’s ticket.
For anyone wanting to apply, you need to take some form of identification with your address on it. I used my new-style driving licence. For published authors, it’s also helpful to produce your Society of Authors membership card since that gets you a three-year BL ticket. Aspiring authors can get a ticket, too, though it may not last as long.
I should warn you, though, that the reader’s ticket comes with a photo on it which is taken at the desk at the time you apply. Since I wasn’t forewarned, it is not the most flattering likeness I ever saw. But I don’t care. I have a BL reader’s ticket. I'll happily show it to get into the BL reading rooms.
Mind you, I probably won't be showing it off to anyone else!