Making the most of the reading room

This post is part of a series I have written arising from my British Academy SRG, where I have been thinking about the processes and practicalities of doing research in rare books rooms. It was planned pre-pandemic, and so some of the detail for reading rooms will need to be checked locally, but the broad ideas should still apply.


In previous posts, I have talked about how I prepare for a rare books reading-room focused research trip, and the essentials I take with me to my desk. In this post, I will talk a little bit about what to expect in rare books rooms about handling books, and then I will explain how I keep track of my material, both notes and photographs.

In most reading rooms, the day will usually start with a conversation with the staff about what I will be consulting, and where I will be seated. If this is a regular reading room, I might be able to select my own seat, but in a specialist rare books room, I would usually expect to have a chat about whether or not I will be looking at manuscripts, or works from the reserve, or anything of particular interest. If I am, then it is likely I will be asked to sit at a particular desk, where the staff can keep an eye on readers to make sure they follow reading room guidelines. The BNF always assigns seats in Salle Y, spacing out the readers, putting people who might be working collaboratively together (and away from others!) and in my case, giving me a seat near the desk, because I order so many items! You will often be asked to hand over your reader’s card when you are given your seat, and you ask to retrieve it when you leave the reading room.

Once I am settled in my seat, I will either order up items I wish to see, using the library’s preferred system, or ask to retrieve books I have set aside from the previous day (see below). Many libraries allow you to order material online, but some still ask for you to complete a request slip for rare items, and you might need to complete a second slip if you wish to see something particularly precious or rare. The slip will be quite simple to fill in, but it will usually need to include:

  • Shelfmark
  • Author (if known)
  • Title
  • Date of publication
  • Format of the work – this helps the staff know where they should be looking on the shelves, as works are usually shelved by format
  • Your name & reader’s card number
    • It is always useful to have your reader number written down separately, in case you have had to hand over your card when getting your seat
  • Your seat number
  • Date of request
  • Reason for request – you need to give enough detail for the staff to get a solid sense of your project, but you don’t usually need to go into huge amounts of detail. ‘Sixteenth-century printing’ is too vague, ‘writing an article on pamphlet production during the French Wars of Religion’ is more likely to be useful.
    • I often note that I am working on material bibliography, because as I have noted elsewhere, I am interested in the paper, ink and other material features of the work that are not easily accessible via a digital copy


If I am working in a library that asks for hand-completed slips, I might take a stack of these at the end of the working day to fill in at home so that I can get requests in early the next day.

Most rare books rooms will have a limit on the number of requests you can make each day, and how many books you can see at once. If you have a lot of items you want to see on a trip, there are things you can do to make the most of your time:

  • Check to see if any of your requests are bound together – do they have the same shelfmark but then have a further number in brackets, or noted as part 2? A lot of library catalogues will note if the work is bound together with other things. If you want to see five items which are all bound together, you can put in a request for one, and that will bring up the volume that contains the other four as well (and you can use your requests for other items).
  • Because the works I am interested in are short, and I am looking for very specific things, I can often get through all of my permitted requests in a morning or afternoon – at which point, I go to another library (if I am in Paris). Again, this is why it is useful to have a good sense of which libraries are open on which days – and crucially what is the latest time they will allow you to order new items.

Once your request has been submitted, either electronically or by hand, it will be checked by a member of staff – they want to see that your request is valid, they might want to know why you need to see the physical item (if there is a digital version available), they want to see if it is in a suitable condition to be consulted, whether or not there are any restrictions on seeing it (is it part of a collection that needs prior approval, for example), and whether it is in place to be consulted – did someone else request it before you?!  It is quite normal to have some further conversation with the staff at this point. Depending on the library, and the day, there might be set times at which they pick up items from the stacks. You should expect to wait before you get your first items.

Once your item has been located, the person in charge of the reading room (often called the président de la salle) will check to see that it can be issued to you – they are concerned with keeping the books in excellent condition, and so if there is a particularly damaged (or valuable) binding or the paper is very delicate, they might decide that it cannot be consulted. More often than not, in my experience, they will allow you to see something, but they will point out the points of fragility, warn you to be careful, and keep an eye on you as you work. Some people don’t like that – I remind myself that other people will probably want to look at this stuff too some day, and we all need to work together to keep things intact so that they can.

When the président de la salle is happy, your book will usually be brought to you at your desk. It will typically be placed on a book rest or cushion (a futon in French) – these are often on the desk when you sit down, or they might be brought to you by the staff when you get your books. They are often made of fabric with Velcro strips which can be adjusted to give greater or lesser depth to the hollow where the book sits. Some libraries have foam block boot rests, and still others cover the foam in velvet, which always makes me happy. Book rests should be used to protect the books – in some reading rooms, the staff are extremely strict about how far you can open the futons, because they don’t want you to put undue pressure on the spine of the book. Woe betide anyone who unvelcros without permission! Using a book rest also usually means using a book weight to keep the pages you want to see in place – these are usually long beanbag-esque tubes so that you can manipulate them to keep pages in place. They come in different weights and lengths for different books, and you might find yourself needing to use more than one to keep things in place. They are also called book snakes (excellent post from the Folger on this here), and in French, serpents (at least, that’s the name I’ve always heard!).

Over time, I’ve come to know both the shelfmark conventions and the ‘futon’ conventions of libraries across France – this is from the Salle Y of the BNF

Depending on the reading room, you might be allowed one book at a time, or you might be allowed to have several on your desk at once. I keep track of the books I have seen throughout the day in my research notebook, although I take the actual notes on individual items on my laptop. Each pamphlet gets its own file, named with the USTC number of the item in question, so I can find it quickly, and also so that if this is an item I have seen in another library, I can see what I wrote about it before. I also tick off what I have seen on my original inventory. You will no doubt have a preferred way of working. I like to be able to go back and see what was bound together, and also it is useful for me when I am backing up my photos.

Taking photographs in rare books rooms

The advances in digital photography and phone technology means that it is quite normal now to see people snapping away in rare books rooms. I for one couldn’t do my current research without the ability to photography books, because I am comparing design features between editions which are often held in different countries, not just different libraries. Changes in the law in France mean that it is now very easy to get authorisation to take pictures of rare books for personal use – i.e., I can take pictures to work on my project, but if I wanted to include an image of one of those books in the final work, I would need to approach the library to get permission, and I might be expected to pay for a professional high resolution image for publication. I would advise people always to check that it is allowed before taking pictures, and also to be aware that many rare books rooms will want to keep a track of what photos you do take – some want to know which items you’re photographing, some want to know how many pictures you take in a day, some don’t want to know any of this – it’s just best to check before you start.

N.B. I have seen some people bemoan the fact that they often see other researchers in archives and rare books rooms ‘just’ taking pictures and not spending time reading or looking with the books. I for one wouldn’t want to judge how someone works on a project I have nothing about – the best approach for me is not going to be the best approach for you. I don’t always need to spend ages on one item if I can identify key points of interest quickly. My research is based on the comparison of lots of works – so I have to take those photos. At the same time, I make notes about key features like paper quality, print quality and exemplar-specific material culture as I go. I try to be as considerate to other reading room users as possible – I don’t venture in to their space, I try to work quietly and efficiently – and I turn that annoying shutter noise off my camera!

If you have to take a lot of photographs, bear in mind that this can be really hard on your body – being bent over a book, often trying to capture quite awkward angles, for long periods of time, is not fun. It can be really stressful if you have a tightly bound book, where you can’t open it very wide (remember what I said about opening the book rest too far!) or if the light levels in the room change as you are working. To avoid this, I tend to take photographs in several short stints throughout the day – unless I am only allowed to see one book at a time, when it is the last thing I do before I return the book.

When I take my pictures, I am careful to start by taking pictures of the binding, and the shelfmark in the book. If there are markers with the shelfmark propped between the pages, I will photograph those too. This is partly because I am interested in those features, but also because it makes organising my material simpler at the end of the day. I take pictures of every page, including blank pages, because that can be useful when I am comparing other copies in other libraries – on more than one occasion, I’ve been able to check if all copies of a pamphlet have the same typographical ornament at the end of the final gathering, for example.

When I have finished taking pictures of an individual item, the last thing I do is take a picture of my bright blue mouse on the desk beside my laptop. This is because I often take several hundred pictures of pages belonging to several dozen pamphlets in one library day. When I upload them to my laptop at the end of the day, the thumbnail images all look very similar. The blue mouse really stands out, and helps me see where each individual pamphlet’s photos start and end as I am backing them up at the end of the day.

At the end of the day in a reading room, I will either hand back all of my books/my final books to the desk, or if I am not finished, I will ask if I can put them aside for another day. Most rare books rooms will allow you to do this rather than asking you to call things up again. They will let you know how long you are allowed to put things aside for (it can be as long as a week, if you have planned to go to another library the next day). You might be asked to fill in another slip with your name and reader’s number. Then, the next time you come to that reading room, you just need to ask to see the items you have mis du côté. If I can order materials in advance, I might do that before I head out. You will usually have to go through at least one security check as you exit the library, to make sure that you have not picked up any of the library’s materials.

The final thing I do each day is I transfer all of the photos I have taken to my laptop, and put them into folders for each individual item. I have learned the hard way that I have to do this that evening, or at the very latest, the next morning before I start a new library day – if I don’t do it daily, the big digital pile that needs sorting just gets bigger and bigger, and it takes longer and longer to check that I have filed everything under the correct reference. Again, this is where my handwritten list of what I have looked at and my bright blue mouse pictures really help me keep track of things. I back up my notes and my pictures every few days to cloud storage and to an external hard drive.

Screenshot of a windows folder containing thumbnail images of individual pamphlet pages, with several images of a blue mouse on a desk
When confronted by a screen full of images of book pages, my blue mouse really jumps out at me, and helps me see where each new pamphlet starts

My final note on this is just to say that it is rare that I manage to see absolutely everything I wanted to at the start of a trip. Items might be missing or on loan elsewhere, I might end up spending a day on a series of pamphlets that I thought I’d get through in an hour or so. It pays to be a bit flexible as well as keeping yourself on a schedule, and also not to beat yourself up if things don’t go according to plan.

I hope these posts have been helpful to those thinking about or planning research trips to rare books rooms. They are based on my experience of often having to see a lot of items in a short time, and of working in dozens of different libraries across Europe and the US. There might be aspects that apply to you, there will no doubt be some things that I do that might not work with your research objectives. The key thing is to plan, talk to library staff about their requirements and regulations, keep your material organised in a way that makes sense to you and always always, back up your work regularly!


I will be posting about particular collections in the near future, so keep an eye out for those.

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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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