Accessing Manuscript Libraries
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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.