UK Web Archive blog

09 March 2020

A Readers Journey: an introduction to using the Reading Rooms at the British Library

By Rachel Brett, Science Reference Team Leader, The British Library

The British Library is one of six UK legal deposit libraries.  We are a dual site based in London and Boston Spa, Yorkshire. At St. Pancras in London we have eleven different subject focused reading rooms comprising of:

  • Humanities 1
  • Humanities 2 - Sound & Vision
  • Newsroom
  • Science 1 & 2
  • Social Sciences
  • Business & Intellectual Property

Plus specialist collections readings rooms:

  • Manuscripts
  • World’s largest Maps collection
  • Rare Books early pre 1850 print & Music
  • Asian & African Studies
British Library reading room
British Library reading room

All reading rooms are staffed by qualified Reference Specialists providing librarian support to all our readers. Access to the Reading Rooms is by free Reader Pass which everyone needs to register for first before they can enter the rooms. Online pre-register is available which must be completed in person with 2 forms of ID. It is advisable to check our website as only certain types of ID are suitable.

Once registration is complete readers are asked to leave large bags and outdoor coats in the cloak room and lockers. We are looking after the National collections, and therefore have some restrictions, including: No pens (pencils only) no food or drink or other items that may damage or mark collection items and no downloading (the only exception being BIPC1).

Depending on the subject and more specifically material type that is being consulted readers can select the room they wish to use. The exception being specialist collections can only be viewed in the respective reading rooms.

“Where are all the books?”
We hold millions of copies of collection items and as such you can’t come in and find all the books on the shelves as you would in public libraries. Our collection is in closed storage and can only be accessed via searching and ordering items from our online catalogues.  The main catalogue for the majority of the Library's collection, including digital items is called Explore the British Library and can be used remotely to discover and locate items, identify delivery times and order material. Items that are held in our basements at St. Pancras take 70 minute for delivery, while collections held at Boston Spa have a 48 hour+ delivery time, with no deliveries at weekends.  Readers can order up to 10 items per day and 6 can be kept on reserve for 3 working days on a rolling basis. The only material that is held on open shelves in the reading rooms is our reference collections including dictionary, encyclopaedia. National bibliographies, biographies etc.  Additionally, we also subscribe to databases, the majority of which can also only be accessed in the reading rooms.

More than just books
We are a hybrid library, and have multi-format collections covering all subjects, including

  • Legal Deposit copies of items published within the UK & Ireland- which also now included digital items and ebooks
  • Open access reference works
  • World’s largest Maps and Rare Books collections
  • Newspapers, Journals, comics, zines
  • Manuscripts & Music scores, Theatre archives
  • Indian Office records, photographs
  • over 2 million sound recordings
  • Stamps, Official publications
  • 5 million reports, conference papers
  • over 50m patents – the largest collection in the World

Oh yes and the UK Web Archive! 
Only some of the UK Web Archive is available to access anywhere, the majority is only available in Reading Rooms of the six UK Legal Deposit Libraries.

To access the web archive, take your readers pass to any of the reading rooms and find a free computer terminal. From there, go to www.webarchive.org.uk and you will be able to access all of the UK Web Archive collection.

Also note that there is FREE WIFI, and items can be scanned freely to email or USB, digital items cannot be downloaded, but photography is allowed with some restrictions. Copyright law applies.

Additionally we offer a Chat service and 1-2-1 sessions delivered by our reference teams to help readers navigate our procedures and collections.