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About IHSPIHSP Credits

Accessing Manuscript Libraries
and Collections

Well in advance of your trip:

  • Study published catalogues for the appropriate libraries and other relevant materials
  • Discuss your project with your advisor and decide which mss. you really must see in the original. Consider carefully whether you could save travel expenses and wear on the ms. by ordering a microfilm. Ask about procedural problems of working in part icular libraries.

A month in advance of the trip:

  • Write to the manuscript room, introducing yourself and your project and stressing the importance of studying the manuscript itself. Be clear that you have already had some experience working with mss. Be sure to list the specific mss. you need to see (including shelf marks) and be as specific as possible about your date of arrival and the length of your stay.
  • Library addresses are available in The World of Learning, The International Directory of Art, and other reference room materials. If possible note down and keep phone/fax numbers and the name of the contact person.
  • Don't necessarily expect a response, although you will probably get one if you write to a major library.

A few days before your arrival:

  • Call/fax to confirm your arrival and arrange a specific time and contact person. This is an important step that may save you considerable time and frustration. You may find, for example, that the library will be closed or that the ms. room has been moved to a different building, or that the ms. has been lent out for an exhibition, or is in conservation, or was destroyed in the war. (This is especially important if you didn't get a response to your first letter.)
  • Get a letter of introduction on letterhead from your advisor, your department's graduate advisor, or department chair. This letter should introduce you and your project and confirm your experience handling manuscripts.
  • If you are going to several libraries, take several copies with original signatures with you, as many places keep them for their files.

Take with you:

  • pencils with erasers (I prefer mechanical pencils, which eliminate the need to look for a sharpener)
  • paper or notecards, in addition to a codicological worksheet
  • flexible, clear metric ruler (important: flexibility makes it easier to measure a ms. folio without touching the parchment)
  • magnifying glass (preferable; although reading rooms always have them they're often scratched, dirty, or of an inconvenient size)
  • letters of introduction
  • copies of your original letter requesting permission, as well as any replies or faxes wallet-sized ID photos (many libraries need them for a photo ID)
  • local currency

On arrival:

  • Every place is different. Sometimes you will have to present yourself at a visitor's office, where you may be required to buy a visitors' pass, before you enter the manuscript reading room itself. For instance at the British Library you will need a pass for the Library's main reading room first, and then a special card for the manuscripts room. An interview at one or both of these sites may be required.
  • Be aware that your bag may be searched, both on entering and on leaving the collection.
  • Fill out any forms, and be prepared to fill out call slips for the manuscript(s) needed.
  • You will find yourself repeating much of the information you initially gave in your letter, but be patient and unfailingly polite! Remember that you are asking to handle an irreplaceable object and that the library staff is trying to protect it so that scholars like you can use it in the future.
  • Your basic goal is to establish your seriousness, your preparation, and your trustworthiness. If you succeed, you may be offered special favors that will facilitate your work. If you are talking to a manuscript curator who seems to be familiar with your manuscript, be sure to ask specifically if anyone else is working on the same book.
  • Be aware that you may be asked to work first from a microfilm or that access to a manuscript on exhibit may be restricted to certain times.

Before starting to work:

  • Ask about closing times at lunch and at the end of the day
  • Ask about the 'last call' for calling out manuscripts
  • Find the washroom/bathroom
  • Ask what you should do with the ms. if you need to step out for a moment
  • Read their rules carefully and make sure you understand them.

Before you leave:

  • Take with you photo order forms and a price list. Most libraries will send you an estimate for he work, and process your order only after you pay for it.
  • Ask about processing times and methods of payment if they are not clearly described on the price list (for instance, the British Library will take a credit card, while the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek prefers payment in person (in DM) or a bank deposit , which is difficult to do from the United States).
  • Ask about reproduction fees if they are not clearly explained on the price list. Many libraries will make exceptions for graduate students or for small-circulation scholarly publications, but that usually takes a special letter from you explaining your situation.

As soon as possible:

  • Write a letter of thanks to the person who helped you the most in the library, especially if it was a curator. Courtesy is usually memorable and will help you in the future.


Additional Advice on Accessing Greek MSS.

  • [to be added]

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.  Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 20 January 2021 [CV]