Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

3 posts categorized "Reading Rooms"

30 April 2020

Got a research query? Ask a librarian

Reference team photo

They may not be in the building, but the Library’s team of Reference Librarians continue to be on hand to answer your questions and solve your queries. You don’t need to be a Reader to ask the team a question. So whether it’s how to get started with our digital resources or help finding a specific item, the team are here to help between 09.30 – 17.00 Monday to Friday.

X marks the spot

A recent mission: to track down one particular image of the Hereford Mappa Mundi – the largest Medieval map known to exist.

First, we check our freely available, digitised version of the book (access this right here) but it’s missing the image. Hmm. Without access to Library buildings we can’t check the physical item until we reopen.

Next. We try the academic library search engine, JISC Lib Hub. This hub gives you details about materials held in many UK national, academic and specialist libraries. And success! Cambridge University and Edinburgh University Libraries hold copies of the same book.But an even better discovery: the Hereford Mappa Mundi has been digitised and is freely available. And it’s pretty spectacular:

Do you need us to hunt down an item for you? Contact the team >

Top tip

Using our Explore catalogue to research? To get the widest set of results, try entering related keywords or search terms. Explore now >

John Boneham

Rare Books Reference Specialist

Aurelio Patierno

Science Reference Specialist


05 May 2015

Reference Services: assisting with your enquiries

Rachel Brett of the Reference Services team – and a specialist on the Library’s extensive art and design collections – explains how she and her colleagues handle the thousands of enquiries they receive from Readers every month.

As a reference specialist for Humanities I respond to enquiries both directly in the Reading Rooms, and remotely via our Ask the Reference Team service.  This service allows anyone anywhere in the world to submit a question to our teams. Queries come into a software program called ‘Question Point’, which staff use to respond to research questions.


By their nature, the enquires we receive are unpredictable, ranging from rudimentary procedural questions to more comprehensive subject specific enquiries. On occasion we assist some of our more renowned readers with their current projects.  However, we are far too professional to discuss such enquires… though a ‘Thank you’ for our support often appears in Forewords!

I am also responsible for selecting open access reference resources for art and design, so I am always keen to answer research enquiries related to my specialist area. Personal favourites often relate to fashion, not least because this allows me to indulge in my own passions - all in the line of duty. For example, an enquirer recently contacted the service seeking images of her late mother who had been a model during the swinging sixties, and who regularly appeared in Vogue.  And so I found myself sitting in our Newsroom, poring over 1960s copies of Vogue

Another enquiry involved determining when Lady Duff Gordon wrote her last contribution on fashion for Hearth and Home magazine in 1914.  Lady Duff Gordon wrote a wickedly funny fashion column, and was an intriguing figure in the history of fashion.  Born Lucy Sutherland, ‘Lucile’ (as she was known) became a celebrated couturière and head of the fashion label of the same name.

Duff Gordon- Lucile
This beautiful sketch by Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) is reproduced from Lucile Ltd : London, Paris, New York and Chicago 1890s - 1930s.  Valerie D. Mendes and Amy De La Haye.

The Lucile label specialised in luxury undergarments at a time when underwear was usually made of heavy crinoline and cotton: a proto Agent Provocateur! She dressed debutantes for the season, as well as producing more affordable designs. An innovative business woman who, amongst other things survived the sinking of the Titanic, Lucile went on to design for film and theatre, and although sometimes overlooked today, she might be considered Britain’s first international female fashion designer. 

These are just two of the fashion-related reference queries I’ve researched recently. I’ve also traced 1980’s fashion spreads featuring British beach wear, looked into the history of purple clothing, searched for bygone Harvey Nichols Christmas adverts for their own archive,  given resources for feather dressers from the Edwardian era, and much more… 

Reference Services still receives telephone enquiries and even some letters, demonstrating that access to information really is open to everyone. We answer on average 25,000 face-to-face enquiries and 5,000 remote enquiries a month (sadly not all related to fashion).Whatever your subject of research, our specialists will be able to help, or know someone who can. So next time you have a question that you think a librarian could help with, ‘Ask the Reference Team’.

You can also follow the Reference Services team on Twitter.

Rachel Brett

Reference Services



The 'It' girls : Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, the couturière 'Lucile', and Elinor Glyn, romantic novelist / Meredith Etherington-Smith and Jeremy Pilcher. Shelfmark(s): General Reference Collection YC.1988.a.11607

Lucile Ltd : London, Paris, New York and Chicago 1890s - 1930s / by Valerie D. Mendes and Amy De La Haye. Shelfmark(s): General Reference Collection LC.31.b.7486 Document Supply fm09/.1572

Vogue. Shelfmark(s): Document Supply V 9251.413000 General Reference Collection ZC.9.d.565

Hearth and home. Related Titles: Later Title: Vanity fair (London, England : 1868); Vanity fair & hearth & home. General Reference Collection LOU.LON 43 [1891]



19 December 2014

Self-service photography in our Reading Rooms

For a number of years we’ve received feedback from Readers asking whether they could take pictures of collection items for research purposes, rather than having to laboriously transcribe extended passages of text. So we’re delighted to announce that, as of 5 January 2015, our current self-service copying arrangements are to be extended to include photography using Readers’ own compact cameras, tablets and mobile phones.

Smartphones and similar devices are already used by researchers for this purpose at institutions including the Bodleian Library, Cambridge University Library and the National Library of Wales. Reader feedback has been consistently in favour of updating our conditions of use to make such photography possible.

At the same time, we’ve been mindful of the need to minimise the potential for disruption and annoyance to other Readers, and to ensure that Readers are fully aware of the copyright, privacy and data protection laws that apply to so much of the Library’s collections.

For the past year I’ve been working with many teams across the Library to introduce this facility. As well as involving colleagues in the Reader Services and Reference teams, we’ve also consulted with our Collection Care department to make guidance available on how to photograph items without subjecting them to unnecessary wear and tear.

The new arrangements are being introduced in two stages – the first will apply to the following Reading Rooms from 5 January:

  • Boston Spa Reading Room
  • Humanities – Floor 1 & 2
  • Newsroom
  • Science – Floor 2 & 3
  • Social Sciences

We’ll be reviewing the feedback we get from Readers and staff, before introducing self-service photography in the second tranche of Reading Rooms in March 2015:

  • Asian & African Studies
  • Business & IP Centre
  • Maps
  • Manuscripts
  • Philatelic
  • Rare Books & Music

Please note that we’re continuing to work on guidelines as to which items included in the second stage can be photographed and which cannot – full guidance on this point will be provided in March.

Before using your device to take photographs, you should read our guidelines on self-service photography – you can also watch these videos on photography and collection handling.

Given that this is a substantial change to existing practice in the Reading Rooms, please bear with us as we get to grips with the practicalities of the new arrangements and please also show consideration for your fellow Readers – in particular, make sure your device is switched to silent mode before you start snapping!

If you have any queries about the new service or, from the New Year, comments about how it is being rolled out you can tweet @BL_Ref_Services or speak to our Reading Room staff.

Rachel Austin

Service Improvement Manager