Social Science blog

17 October 2012

Social Science at The British Library

This week the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) published an introduction to social science resources at the British Library. This website contains information about our collections, academic case studies and guides from our curators. It was compiled by our ESRC placement, historian and social science convert, Tom Hulme; he writes about his experience at the Library in this guest blog:

As part of an ESRC scholarship programme I was given the chance to spend six months in the British Library, putting together a web-based resource on materials in the Social Science collections. Shamefully, before undertaking this internship, I was quite unfamiliar with the range and depth of its holdings - my use of the Library's services was limited to inter-library loan of books and its vast online newspaper archives. Within weeks of taking up the job it became clear that these aspects of the Library were the tip of a colossal iceberg.

At first the task was quite daunting: millions of items, covering a range of social science disciplines, in a variety of different formats. While I use some social science informed methods in my research I am, above all, a historian. Knowing where to begin in this enormous field was an intimidating prospect. Quickly, and fortunately, the task became more manageable after meeting the expert curators working in the department. All had experience with collecting, cataloguing, and using the collections - some with decades of knowledge. If the primary significance of the British Library is the documents and resources it has both onsite and online, its secondary value is the expertise of the people who work there. From reading room staff to curators, the extent of familiarity with such a gargantuan amount of stuff is astounding. With their guidance I fumbled my way towards the most important and sometimes regrettably underused resources. 

Mention the British Library to most researchers and they are usually aware of its remit in collecting a copy of every book published in Britain. This sole attribute makes it vitally important to researchers. Yet dig a bit deeper and you can find a whole host of items not caught by the traditional net of legal deposit. Ephemera especially, being both transient and difficult to conserve, garnered my attention as an underused yet incredibly interesting resource. The extent of oral histories also surprised me, covering topics and periods from not just Britain but further afield as well. It was a joy to dip in and out of greatly different collections, and to try and grasp at a way that such materials could be used alongside each other.

As part of my role I also approached academics and researchers who had utilised social science at the British Library, keen to share their positive experiences. Initially this was somewhat difficult; the British Library is not always cited in footnotes, or explicitly mentioned in oral presentations. After closer investigation however, and exploitation of the Library's eager network of academic friends, I found an impressive body of widely different case studies. Most exciting to me, as a historian, was the ways in which historical materials had been analysed through the lens of social science to inform contemporary research agendas. Early modern pamphlets on intoxication gave context to contemporary debates on alcohol consumption, for example, while cookbooks were closely-read to examine social and ethnic identity. From geographers to political scientists, or sociologists and historians, there seemed to not be a discipline untouched by British Library resources.

When the internship came to an end I was sad to leave. While local archives are, and will remain, the backbone of my research, the information I discovered while working at the Library has added flesh and depth to my work.  To be surrounded by centuries of collections, presented and used in both traditional and novel ways, going to work was never a chore. I hope that this web-resource will convey some of my positive experiences, and encourage researchers to undertake new and exciting research projects using the material and human knowledge of Social Science at the British Library.

Tom Hulme is currently completing his PhD: "Civic Culture and Citizenship: the nature of urban governance in interwar Manchester and Chicago" at the University of Leicester.


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