Researching the Asian and African Collections at the British Library
The Asian and African department at the British Library began 2019 with one of the most important annual events in our calendar: a training day for students beginning their doctoral dissertations. Approximately fifty students from across the UK were introduced to the collections and the best ways to research them.
It was a ‘really fantastic’ experience, according to one participant, who explained that ‘the collections of the BL can be wonderful but overwhelming so it was incredibly helpful being introduced to what there is and how to use them’.
So, what were the top tips from the day? Where should researchers begin when confronted with the enormous collections at the British Library? If you haven’t used our collections yet – or if you have, but aren’t too sure how it all works – then this blog will get you started.
Where to start
The first place to look is our subject hub pages. (You can also get there from the front page of our website by going to the ‘Catalogues and Collections’ menu, then selecting ‘Overview of the Collections’.)
These pages give you a quick overview of what’s in the BL’s collections, how you can access it, and what you can get elsewhere. It’s an essential place to start, so that you know the sort of things you can search for in our catalogues and what we’re likely to have (as well as what we don’t have).
Relevant subject hubs for Asian and African Studies via https://www.bl.uk/subjects
Understanding our collections
The British Library’s collections are huge. They are:
- from all over the world
- in all major world languages, and many others
- in all disciplines, and
- historical and contemporary.
We hold material in a very wide range of formats. If, so far, you’ve only thought about using books and manuscripts or archives, it could be worth asking how other items (perhaps sound recordings, or maps) could bring new dimensions to your research.
Searching the collections
There are two main catalogues:
Explore the British Library, for (mainly) published material:
- Books and serials
- Audio-visual material
- Doctoral theses
- Archived websites
- Printed music
Explore Archives and Manuscripts, for (mainly) unpublished material:
- Visual collections
Both catalogues indicate hard-copy and digital material.
Additional catalogues are also available via our website, and these may give more detail on particular collections. For example, the Sound and Moving Image catalogue is recommended for audio-visual collections.
Using the collections: in the Reading Rooms
For physical/hard-copy items, you’ll need to come into our Reading Rooms (having first obtained a Reader Pass). Our full collections are available for research at our main building in St Pancras, London. You can also see many items (but not everything) in our Reading Room at Boston Spa, Wetherby, Yorkshire.
For licensing reasons, some electronic material is only available on-site in our Reading Rooms. The most important thing to be aware of in this respect is our collection of subscription e-resources. These are electronic packages which the British Library buys and/or subscribes to. They include:
- bibliographies and other reference tools
- journals and e-books, and
- collections of primary sources.
University libraries also offer these packages, but we have many things which individual libraries may not hold, so it’s always worth checking. The best way to find out what we have is to go to our electronic resources page.
Remote access to a few of these resources is available to Reader Pass holders, and may increase in future. Where this service is offered, it’s indicated on the electronic resources page.
The British Library is given one free copy of every book published or distributed in the UK. This is called legal deposit, and these days about half of this material come to us as e-books. These electronic publications are also only available in the Reading Rooms. These can be identified through Explore the British Library and read on the Reading Room computers.
Using the collections: online
We are digitising more and more of our collections, which means that some of the material you’ll find in our catalogues is available free online.
Manuscripts from our collections are available through the Digitised Manuscripts portal, which includes (but is not limited to) Ethiopic, Hebrew, Malay, Persian and Thai manuscripts. See the Asian and African Studies blog for more on these digitised manuscripts.
- The Endangered Archives Programme offers large collections of archives and manuscripts from many African and Asian countries online. (The originals remain in the country of origin.)
Doctoral theses (dissertations) from most UK universities can be downloaded or requested via our EThOS service. In many cases, it’s free.
- The Qatar Digital Library has digitised many India Office Records and Arabic manuscripts held by the British Library. These are of particular relevance to the history of the Middle East, but also relate to East Africa and the Horn, as well as other regions.
Many older books in our collections have been digitised and are available through Explore the British Library. When you find records for these items, you can click through to the full text, which is also available in Google Books.
And finally…talk to us!
We know that the BL is complicated and staff in Asian and African Collections are happy to point you in the right direction. You can reach us online, or by talking to the staff on the enquiry desk in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room. Enquiries are handled by a specialist reference team, and referred to curators if necessary.
And don’t forget our blog, a mine of information on our collections.
Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa