Planning a research trip – before I go

This post is part of a series about preparing for and undertaking research trips in rare books rooms and libraries which arises from a British Academy Small Research Grant I held between 2017 and 2020. I will mainly be talking about French libraries, but I will also make reference to libraries in other countries too

I have been on dozens of research trips over my years as a PhD student, a postdoc and latterly as a member of staff on a lecturing/research contract. Most of my early research trips were undertaken as part of the French Vernacular Books Project, and were done as part of a team. That meant that some of the logistical challenges (organising accommodation and transport, setting a schedule of what to see when, etc.) were largely taken out of my hands. I had to learn how to handle that for myself later on. But I did get to see how other people got the most out of their library time, which has no doubt influenced how I work now. I’ll go through my reading room checklist in another post – here, I will go through what I do before I have even left on my trip.

Putting together an inventory

Usually, a research trip will involve a fair amount of preparatory work before I even leave. I need to have a general sense of what the library holds that is relevant to me so that I know approximately how long I need to spend there. I use online catalogues like the Universal Short Title Catalogue as well as the library’s own catalogues to build up a general sense of what I want to see. I include the following information in my inventories:

  • full book title
  • book author if know (lots of my pamphlets are anonymous!)
  • date of publication
  • place of publication
  • printer details
  • format
  • collation – this can be really useful if a library has more than one copy of a title, and you need to get to see very specific editions (I always need to see the specific editions!)
  • library shelfmark – their reference number that tells them whereabouts the item is located
    • These can be very long and complicated, and they probably make no sense to you as a reader, at least at first. It is important that you take down every detail, as it is written in their catalogue, not how it has been rendered in other works, because that is how they will find your work
      • For example, for the works I often look at, a BNF shelfmark might look something like F-23668 (220), or LB36-935. These would likely be held in different parts of the Tolbiac site, and I would have to call them up separately. An item in Sainte-Genevieve looks more like 8o Q 55 inv 903. The French pamphlets at the Newberry library that I am most interested in have shelfmarks in the format Case F 39 326 1561 FR. You get used to the different shelfmark formats, and it’s useful to keep a close track of them in your notes and in your photos.
    • It can also be interesting to ask about the shelfmarks when you are in the library – they often give you insight into how the collection has been built up, and how it is stored.
  • I also include the USTC number in my list, because that reference is what I use to organise my own research notes.

I have a copy of the inventory on my laptop, but I also usually take at least two printed out copies – one is for me to make notes on and tick things off as I go, the other(s) are in case the library asks me either when I register or when I arrive in the rare books room to see a list of what I hope to consult. It is always useful to have that on hand.

Of course, sometimes I will end up seeing things that I didn’t expect to, because they were bound together with something else, or the library staff alert me to something, or I end up chasing a lead and needing to call up something else. That’s all part of the fun of the research process 🙂

How to get access

I use the library website to check key things about access. As well as basics like location, public transport options, opening hours – rare books rooms will often have shorter opening hours than the rest of the library – I want to check that I am not planning a trip during the fermeture annuelle (annual closure) when libraries do essential stock taking and maintenance works. For the BNF, it’s usually at the end of August/start of September, but other libraries will close at different times of the year, so it’s really important to check that it will definitely be open when you get there. Another thing to bear in mind is that libraries will be shut on public holidays – in France, both May and August have several public holidays, so that will take out a few days that you might have been counting on.

A few weeks before I go, I will email the library to let them know I am coming, what dates I will be there, what I hope to see, and what I am ultimately working on (book/article). The only exception to this is when I am working at the big Paris libraries (BNF, Arsenal, Mazarine) where the set-up is so slick and they see so many people that they don’t really need the warning that I am coming! I will try to email the head of rare books directly, otherwise I will use a more generic email address.

  • One reason for doing this is because as libraries make more and more of their works accessible via digital copies, they can be puzzled as to why a researcher wants or needs to see the original, particularly if that original is in any way delicate, or has a particular fragile or precious binding. My work is largely about the material state of the book – I want to understand the paper and the ink, and how the item is bound with other pieces, and if there is any hint of marginalia. Therefore, it’s helpful to have established exactly what it is I am doing before I arrive, so that the library staff understand why I need to see the originals when there are online versions that would be absolutely adequate for other kinds of research.
  • Some material you want to see might be restricted, or need special authorisation given in advance before you can see it – it’s useful to get that ball rolling before you arrive at the library if possible.

If I’ve worked in the library before, I will make sure I have my reader’s card, and that it is up to date. If it is a library where I have not worked before, I also make sure what I need in order to register – this will usually involve some photo ID (passport is usually enough) and some proof of where I work (I will always have my staff ID, but I will also often take a letter in French signed by either my Head of School or Director of Research, saying I am who I say I am, and broadly what I work on). If you are a student doing research, you should always have a letter from your supervisor explaining what your research project is and why you need to see that collection – in French (assuming you are working in France). You used to always have to bring a passport sized photo of yourself – most libraries now have the facilities to take photos on the spot, but not all do, so double check if you need to bring a photo – one of the cards pictured below has a picture of a bleery-eyed me on the reverse, which I had to get done in a metro station on the way to the library!

A photo showing four library cards from different Drench libraries on a desk
A colourful selection of reading cards is one of the perks of working in different libraries


I will also often have something with my home address typed on it – you should expect to spend a fair amount of time spelling out your name and your address at registration, and as UK addresses are so different to French addresses, having it written out is much simpler! You will also likely be asked for your address whilst in France – that can be tricky if you are staying in a hotel, but most library staff will be understanding about this.

I also check if there is a registration fee for the library – this is quite common in France, depending on what kind of library it is. Students might get a reduced rate, so again, have that student ID and letter from your supervisor ready. You might get a reduced fee or free access if you are only planning on using the library for a few days.

  • If I am working in a place where there are a couple of libraries and archives I want to visit, I will have a loose plan in advance about which days I want to spend in each place. This is so that I can get the most ‘book time’ possible. It can sometimes take a bit of working out. For example, the rare books room (Salle Y) at the BNF is only open on Monday afternoons, but the Mazarine is open 10h-18h on Mondays, as is the Arsenal, so it makes more sense often for me to start the week in one of the those other libraries. The Mazarine always used to be closed on Saturdays, but the BNF was open 9-18h.
  • If I only have a week in a town, then I tend to be in the library as much as possible. If I am there for a month, I will try to listen to my body, and take some time out of the library if I am getting too tense and tired. This used to feel very wasteful to me, but I now recognise that it is essential to pace myself. I might go for a walk (perhaps to one of the places mentioned in my research), sit and read in a park, or meet a friend for a coffee. Often, days I spend out of the library are when I get clarity about a point I’ve been stuck on, and I end up frantically writing notes to myself sitting on park benches, which then become key paragraphs of whatever I am working on!

How to get there and where to stay

My other key concerns before I leave are obviously booking travel and accommodation – increasingly, if you are lucky enough to have some kind of research funding to draw on, you might be expected to use a university travel service to do this. It is worth talking to the research support staff in your institution about how to make this work for you – for example, although it can be helpful not to have to pay for things yourself and then wait to claim money back, some of the suggestions for accommodation in Paris made by professional travel services can be eye-wateringly expensive, particularly if you are used to a world of home-stays and cheap rentals. There might be ways that you can find cheaper options, but you will need to get guidance on that – it might have an impact on whether or not you are covered by the university’s travel insurance policies (you *definitely* need to have travel insurance). I have been able to book home-stays, and save a lot of money, but I have had to fill out longer risk assessments, and I’ve had to check with hosts about things like carbon-monoxide alarms and their safety standards.

It’s always slightly pot-luck booking accommodation in a new place – when I go to Paris, I have particular areas that I know well, and prefer to stay in, but on trips to other places, I tend to balance price/reviews of accommodation/advice from friends/distance from library/how easy it is to get to the accommodation on public transport.  I don’t like to stay too close to the library – I prefer to stay in a slightly more out of the way area and to have a walk to and from the library at the start and end of the day. For me, it’s useful to have a bit of time to gather my thoughts between ‘home’ and ‘work’. Other people prefer to stay very close.

If possible, I tend to get trains rather than flying. This is partly because I have traveled a lot in the past, so I am conscious of my carbon footprint. But it is also because I tend to stock up on books and french toiletries whenever I am in France, so I don’t like to worry about how much my suitcase is going to weigh on the way back!

These have always been my key concerns when planning a research trip abroad. I’ve been fortunate that most of my research has been done in countries where I haven’t had to have a visa, and on the few occasions that I have needed a visa (both for the US), I’ve been sponsored by institutions who have helped me with the process.  Once I start travelling again, I might well find that the effects of the global pandemic and the UK’s exit from Europe require even more forward planning for research trips.

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Associate Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Interested in all things early modern, European, news & print-culture and higher ed teaching related.

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