Social Science at the British Library


A review of Social Science Resources at the British Library, London, United Kingdom.

As part of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) PhD scholarship program at the Centre for Urban History at the University of Leicester, I was lucky enough to spend January to July 2012 as an intern in the British Library. My role was to create a web-based resource of case studies detailing materials in the Social Science collections. Before undertaking this project I was unfamiliar with the range and depth of its holdings — my use of the Library’s services was limited to inter-library loan of books and its vast online newspaper archives. It quickly became clear that these aspects of the British Library were the tip of a colossal iceberg.

Ed. Note: Please see the Social Science at the British Library webpage. This page includes, among many resources: the Social Sciences Topical Bibliographies (on subjects as diverse as knife crime, electoral reform and polar geopolitics), information on qualitative and quantitative research methods, case studies on sport and society, food studies, market research, Mass Observation, and quick introductions to the moving images and sound collections at the British Library. Readers may also be interested in Rian Thum’s “Fresh from the Archives” article on Eastern Turki Materials at the British Library.

At first the task was quite daunting: millions of items, covering a range of social science disciplines, in a variety of different formats. While I use some social science informed methods in my research, I am above all a historian. Knowing where to begin in this enormous field was an intimidating prospect. Quickly, and fortunately, the task became more manageable after meeting the expert curators working in the department. All had experience with collecting, cataloging, and using the collections — some with decades of knowledge. If the primary significance of the British Library is the documents and resources it has both onsite and online, its secondary value is the expertise of the people who work there. From reading room staff to curators, the extent of familiarity with such a gargantuan amount of stuff is astounding. With their guidance I fumbled my way towards the most important and sometimes regrettably underused resources.

Mention the British Library to most researchers and they are usually aware of its remit in collecting a copy of every book published in Britain. This sole attribute makes it vitally important to researchers. Yet dig a bit deeper and you can find a whole host of items not caught by the traditional net of legal deposit. I decided to concentrate primarily on these elements in the collections I researched — some of which I will outline here.

Particularly interesting were historic cookbooks — ranging from antiquity to the present day. Social scientists have used these to study a range of topics — such as food culture, gender, colonial relationships, and ethnic identities. These items are of particular use to sociologists, historians, and anthropologists. Some are beautifully illustrated, while others are densely packed with recipes using ingredients often unheard of today. With a variety of origins — from community cookbooks to women writers in the British Raj — they are versatile sources of information about different societies.

Pamphlets and ephemera also garnered a lot of my interest and research time. These often forgotten documents range from the wild to the mundane, and come in a range of formats – tickets, receipts, posters, leaflets, stamps, and even calendars. Their intentionally fleeting use offers researchers an unrivaled glimpse into the quotidian aspect of society. While it is impossible for there to ever be a “complete” collection of ephemera in the same sense as published material, the Library holds many large collections — from Soviet era propaganda posters, to Central Office of Information leaflets. Almost every discipline can find something of use in ephemera.

One of the newest resources of the British Library, which I was able to get a glimpse of before it launched in October, is Broadcast News. This service has been recording various television news programs since the 2010 British Election, across a range of channels. For those studying contemporary issues, like the 2011 London riots, it is unrivaled in its depth and ease of use, being accessible at computer terminals in several reading rooms. Alongside the visual recordings there is also the option to view subtitles. The possibilities of this resource are endless, lending itself well to linguistic and visual analysis especially.

One resource I found myself returning to again and again, for both work and pleasure, was the collection of oral histories. Many of these have been collected as projects funded by the National Life Stories trust, founded in 1987 to record first-hand experiences of as wide a cross-section of society as possible. These collections stretch back to the beginning of the twentieth century and continue to the present day, covering a wide range of topics such as employment experiences in different industries (like the press, the oil industry, the post office) and memories from the Jewish community. While some of these oral histories are instantly accessible in the reading rooms on the SoundServer, others, such as those still on hard media like cassettes, must be ordered in advance.

The building itself is a hive of activity, popular with undergraduates and PhD students, as well as academics and other researchers. Many come just to visit the excellent exhibitions, such as the permanent “British Library Treasures,” which is a definite port of call for anyone interested in important literature, music, documents or maps. As well as the various reading rooms there is a café and a restaurant, as well as storage space for personal belongings. Wifi is available throughout the building (you can pre-register for Wifi before your visit and the Wifi service is gradually becoming more reliable), and you will often find students working in the public areas, apparently inspired by the place itself. While these areas can be noisy, the atmosphere is friendly. Located adjacent to the King’s Cross and St Pancras train/underground stations in central London, and within walking distance from Euston, it is easily accessible by public transport, and almost impossible to miss. It is of course also within walking distance from Bloomsbury: The British Museum, University College London, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Birkbeck, Institute of Historical Research, The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, The Warburg Institute, The Wellcome Library and Archives, and many others.

Anyone can enter the building to use the café and public areas, and some of the exhibitions are free. Laptops are allowed in the reading rooms, but no pens or jackets. Note that digital cameras are not allowed in the reading rooms, and for photocopying refer to the Copying Services page. To work in the reading rooms however you will need a reader’s pass, which requires two pieces of documentary identity evidence. Registration can be completed on the day of your visit, and is also free. For more information on this process see the Library website on registration. Items can be preordered, as some are stored offsite, as well as ordered on the day — all online. Items are then collected from the issuing desk in the reading rooms. The reading rooms have various opening hours, but the building is open every day of the week. I found that the Library was at its quietest at the beginning and end of the day, and most hectic around lunch-time and early afternoon. While it is unlikely that the reading rooms will totally be full, it can get very crowded.

When the internship came to an end I was sad to leave. While local archives are, and will remain, the backbone of my research, the information I discovered while working at the British Library has added flesh and depth to my work.  To be surrounded by centuries of collections, presented and used in both traditional and novel ways, going to work was never a chore. While a lot of material is digitized, the internship reaffirmed to me the central place the actual physical archive still occupies. I hope that web-resource, as well as this review, will convey some of my positive experiences, and encourage researchers to undertake new and exciting projects using the material and human knowledge of Social Science at the British Library.

Tom Hulme
Centre for Urban History
University of Leicester
Departmental Profile


Image: Interior of the British Library. Photograph by Andrew Dunn, Wikimedia Commons.

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