Sara’s essential reading room kit

This is part of a series arising from my British Academy SRG project on pamphlet reprinting and copying during the French Wars of Religion. 

Working in a rare books room for the first time can be a rather overwhelming experience. Rare books rooms tend to be extremely quiet, you are likely to have to agree to rules and regulations over and above those in place for readers of non-rare books material, and each reading room seems to have its own traditions and regulations. I’ll talk a bit more about those in my posts on individual libraries.

If you are working with rare or valuable materials, either in a special room or on a designated desk within a larger reading room, you will often be asked to leave your bag and outside coat in a locker, and only take essential items with you to the reading room/desk. My essential reading room items, honed over the best part of two decades lurking in rare books rooms are listed below.

  • laptop.
  • cables – seems obvious, I have left them at home or in my locker more than once, and had to waste time retrieving them.
  • wireless mouse – partly because I like to use a mouse, partly for reasons I will outline in my post on managing my rare books room research!
  • UK→Europe adapter – I have a special adapter I keep for libraries, which lifts my bulky UK plug up away from the socket – the standard UK adapter has a lip around the bit where the socket goes that tends to make the UK plug even more bulky (see image below), and if the plug sockets for neighbouring desks are close together, as they often are in old reading rooms, you can really tick off your neighbour if your plug encroaches into their plug space!
Two UK-Europe adapters, one traditional on the left, one with an extended body which raises the original plug away from the socket on the right
My ‘reading room adapter’ on the right goes on to the plug attached to my computer cables at the start of a European research trip and does not come off until I get back to the UK!
  • phone/camera – I used to have a separate camera for my research trips, but my current phone camera takes higher resolution pictures – the shop assistant found it very funny when I was upgrading that my main criteria was ‘must be able to take excellent pictures of old books’.
  • charging cables for phone/camera – because the battery will drain far more quickly than you will ever imagine.
  • transfer cables (if different).
  • research notebook – I am unashamedly old school, I take notes and keep track of my work in a notebook. I then use this to check back what I have seen when I am backing up my notes and photos.
  • Copy of my inventory.
  • pencils (and eraser and sharpener) – in the vast majority of rare books rooms, you will only be allowed to use a pencil. It might seem obvious, but then again, when I was a PhD student, I went into ‘Rare Books and Music’ in the British Library to find a notice on every desk saying that a reader had been caught using highlighter pens in the books, so maybe it really does need saying! Being a stationery nerd, I have preferred pencils, both traditional and automatic, and I will always have a couple on me just in case one breaks. If I need to sharpen the pencil, I am always careful to do so in full view of library staff, so that they can see I am being careful!
  • a ruler – I spend a lot of time measuring letters and pages.
  • a sweater/wrap/big scarf – as I once heard a conservateur explain to a new reader, the room is the perfect temperature for the books, not for readers. Most reading rooms are air-conditioned, and quite aggressively so! Be prepared to be chilly. Layers are your friend, particularly if your trip is in the summer months. It is quite usual to see me arrive at the BNF in a t shirt and then to put on a sweater and pick up two scarves (one for arms, one for legs) to go into the reading room.
  • A bottle of water – you might have to keep this away from your desk, but you need to keep hydrated.

Those are my key items for happy rare books working. In my next post, I will talk about how I manage working in rare books rooms, in particular keeping track of all of my research notes and photos.

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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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