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A week at the British Library: how to make the most of your research trip

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English Literature and American Studies student Kari Sund shares her tips for PhD students wanting to get the most out of their time at the British Library.


Hey all, I’m a part-time PhD student at the University of Glasgow, in the department of English Literature and American Studies. I was lucky enough to be awarded £300 through the College of Arts Research Support Award this year for a research trip to the British Library.

I’m hoping that this blog will prove useful for any students who are thinking of applying for the award, and for anyone who is planning their first research trip to the British Library.

Applying for a College Research Support Award

This will be slightly different for everyone depending on what you want to use your award for. My thesis is on a genre of literature called the “Hollywood novel,” and at the beginning of my first year I had searched through the National Library of Scotland (NLS) catalogue for early examples of Hollywood novels by women, as this was an area I thought my research might focus on.

The NLS is a fantastic resource that holds almost everything I was looking for, and many works are even available digitally. There were a couple of works, however, which I could only find in the British Library catalogue.

My primary supervisor, Dr. Laura Rattray, instantly recognised the benefits of a visit to the British Library. Her support contributed to the success of my application.

Tip: be very specific about why you want the award and work closely with your supervisor.

How to apply for a College Research Support Award

Planning the trip

The planning process was quite complicated for me, but this would vary depending on how long you’re going for, where you’re based, and your circumstances.

Call on favours from friends

I wanted to access three larger works (two novels and a collected manuscript/typescript), so I wanted to make my award last as long as possible. I work Monday to Friday, so getting annual leave authorised on a week where train tickets were as cheap as possible was the first step. I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of friends in and around London who were kind enough to let me crash with them, so I managed to make my trip last from 10 –17 November, giving me seven whole days in the library! I was delighted with this, of course, but it did take very careful organisation. I stayed with four separate friends, one in Manchester, Reading, London, and finally Brighton.

Co-ordinating with everyone; planning travel to and from each place; and organising affordable accommodation for the days that I wasn’t intruding on my lovely pals, was a lengthy process! I’m not sure when or if I will be able to make another such trip during the course of my PhD, so it was well worth the additional planning to be able to double the time I could spend in the library. And I was extremely lucky to have kind people to stay with… thanks friends!

Save money on travel

To make the most of your award it might take some roundabout organisation. For instance, when booking my trains I worked out that the cost of a NUS railcard (£30) was less than the potential saving on train fares, and this got me further discounts on my Oyster card.  Although staying with friends in nearby cities increased my travel time and costs, this was infinitely cheaper than the cost of accommodation in London, and the sole reason I was able to stretch my trip to a whole week.

Plus, we all know how much work you get done on the train, just make sure you glue your bag to your back, as not having one base to go back to every night means you will be carrying all your belongings around with you a lot!

Tip: be organised to make the most of your trip, save money – and travel light.

A poster advertising the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library

How to use The British Library

Prepare

I did all the practical stuff to prepare for my trip, like pre-register for a reader pass online and order my books in advance so I wouldn’t be twiddling my thumbs on arrival. But I don’t think anything would have fully readied me for knowing how to access the enormous amount of material that the library has to offer until I actually got there and saw the resources for myself.

Dr. Rattray and my secondary supervisor, Professor Faye Hammill, both gave me invaluable tips about using the library to help me make the most of my time there. This also made it seem less daunting. I don’t know about you, but I definitely felt daunted at the prospect of my first research trip, and imposter syndrome can kick in when you go to a world-renowned research hub like the British Library. Asking for help (and by extension admitting you don’t know what you’re doing) can be nerve-wracking, but it’s also completely normal!

Ask for help

I was really confused about some of the electronic databases before I arrived, but when I started using them everything became clearer. Every reading room has an information desk, so I would recommend that the minute you get your reader pass , go there and ask them anything you are unsure of. I can’t stress how incredibly helpful the staff were in every single interaction I had. From the security guards in the reading rooms, to the staff at the info desks: they all had a welcoming smile for me and were happy to help with any query, big or small.

Meet subject specialists

My meeting with Cara Rodway, the Deputy Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library, was one of the highlights of my week. She had gathered a huge list of resources that she thought might be helpful, explained to me how things like film archives and microfilm (which I had never used before) might be useful for my research, and we also just had a great discussion about our respective research topics. Plus, having access to the Eccles Centre made me feel part of a larger cohort of American Studies researchers.

Remember: you are only there for a limited amount of time, you’ve travelled a long way, and you don’t necessarily know when or if you’ll be back, so you owe it to yourself to make the most of your trip!

Tips:

  • Do as much as possible beforehand to save time when you get there
  • Pre-register for your reader pass and pre-order materials
  • Email ahead to arrange to meet subject specialists on your visit
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

A week to focus

Aside from being able to access rare materials, one of the best aspects of my trip was the privilege of being able to dedicate seven whole uninterrupted days to my thesis. A normal week for me – and I’m sure for most of you – involves dividing my time between paid employment, small and large funding applications, academic event planning, committee work, training courses, and countless other things. When all this has been factored in, I never have the amount of time I would like to dedicate to my thesis.  I’m sure everyone is familiar with that nagging guilt of not being able to spend all of your time on your thesis. Well, thanks to the College of Arts Research Support Award, I have now experienced the privilege of being able to spend a week doing nothing but that!

Cats on the Page exhibition at the British Library

In addition, I got to read rare Hollywood novels which shed new perspectives on my own work, developed my argument considerably, and have led to a whole new thesis chapter.  You can’t really put a price on that, but £300 certainly helped, and I would like to send my thanks to the College of Arts for this award, and encourage anyone thinking of applying to do so!

I hope you’ve found this helpful, if anyone has any further questions then please do feel to get in touch.

 


Kari Sund is a PhD student in English Literature and American Studies, researching the Hollywood novel.

Find her on Twitter: @KariCHSund

Post Author: Kelly Arnstein

Kelly is Digital Content Officer for the College of Arts.

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