It’s been a half century since the publication of Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order.[ref]Paul Baran and Paul Swezy, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966).[/ref] The book was written by the American Marxist economists Paul Baran and Paul Swezy. Monopoly Capital advances a trenchant critique of advanced industrial capitalism. Still salient, the book remains important for romanticists invested both in the Marxist tradition in critical theory, and the project of tracing the eighteenth-century British origins of contemporary constellations of global capitalist political economy. In this post, I return to Monopoly Capital, trace the text’s key contours, and argue for both its importance for understanding aspects of the contemporary ecological predicament, and the need to update Baran and Swezy’s ideas according to the concept of “disaster capitalism.”[ref]See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007); Antony Lowenstein, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe (London: Verso, 2015).[/ref]
Continue reading “Art & Oil in the Age of Monopoly and Disaster Capital”
Preface to Graduate School: Reading Hegel or learning how to read again
After an arduous year one of grad school I have come out alive. In anxious preparation for year two a few good friends and myself set quite the task this summer to read Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit that haunted us all year. Given the complexity and reputation of the great man himself I find our “Adventures in Hegel” will entertain readers on how we successfully managed reading his “Preface” to the book. What follows is the affective and intellectual journey myself and friends Katy and Liz have embarked upon.
In lieu of actually trying to explain Hegelian thought or even relay my precise thoughts on the preface I provide some useful tactics we employed to “mastering”, well, getting through difficult texts such as Hegel. Now at the end of year one of graduate studies I can attest the most common nerve-racking question from new grad students to be “How do I read X?” Whether long novels, poetry, images, and of course theory/philosophy everyone has that one form they consider impenetrable to decipher. My fellow book club interlocutors agreed our reading of Hegel to be extremely enlightening and cleared up many conceptual gaps. It does help we’re all good friends but we actually had a great afternoon discussing Hegel? It was fun, and not soul-crushingly dark and intimidating? But how?! Our satisfaction shows such texts are indeed very approachable with just the right attitude.
Continue reading “Preface to Graduate School: Reading Hegel or learning how to read again”
First Year Graduate School Guide: Surviving Semester One
Please allow my brief detour from the Romantic optic of the blog to offer some tips and reflections have grown out of the last few months of semester one of graduate life. I share them in hope others in a graduate program for literary studies or other related fields will learn or perhaps remember how to keep afloat in semester one.
Confession: I have yet to turn in any seminar papers and there’s still 11 days left before I can truthfully call myself a victor, but I’ve made it this far—perhaps there’s something to my method besides madness.
Continue reading “First Year Graduate School Guide: Surviving Semester One”
Confessions of a Crazed Ph.D. Student, or, A Very Honest Account of Exams Preparation
I am currently wading neck deep in the quagmire that is comprehensive exam preparation. Countless fellow students warned me ahead of time that this would be the most challenging aspect of my pursuit for a doctoral degree. While that remains to be seen, I can admit that the last few months have been exhausting to say the least. Below, I will narrate some of the realities I have thus far experienced, both good and bad, with as much honesty as possible. Whether you can relate, commiserate, or completely disagree with me, I hope that my transparency will help prepare others for their own exams.
You will have an “oh, sh*t” moment.
There will come a point where you think you have a handle on your list, that you are on top of your reading and this whole thing will be a piece of cake. It’s not. Continue reading “Confessions of a Crazed Ph.D. Student, or, A Very Honest Account of Exams Preparation”
Trick yourself into productivity: the best technologies to keep you focused
‘Tis the season—to become a crazy hermit living under a pile of blankets and books as a tangle of charging cords threatens to spill your very full coffee mug or wine glass (or both, no judgment) onto your laptop. The worst time of the school semester is upon us as the holidays collide with final deadlines. Student grades need to be finalized and seminar papers written, all while family and friends inundate you with invitations to various shenanigans. Personally, this is the time of year where I struggle to get everything done while still enjoying the holiday cheer and remaining sane. So I have compiled a list of the best technologies tested by yours truly to help you reach your deadlines, whatever they may be. Good luck! Continue reading “Trick yourself into productivity: the best technologies to keep you focused”
"I have a new leaf to turn over:" A Romanticist's Resolutions for 2014
I think we can all agree that Keats’s Endymion (1818) was a critical and commercial failure. As Renee discusses in her post, Tory reviewers lambasted the poem because of Keats’s affiliation with outspoken radical Leigh Hunt. Although the poem’s most notorious critic, John Gibson Lockhart, notes its metrical deviations from the traditional heroic couplet form, he spends more time attacking Keats personally: “He is only a boy of pretty abilities, which he has done every thing in his power to spoil.” It’s no wonder, then, that Keats’s letters written in the months that followed show a recurring preoccupation with self-improvement, or “turning over a new leaf.” In a short letter to Richard Woodhouse (friend and editor) dated December 18, 1818, he writes “Look here, Woodhouse – I have a new leaf to turn over: I must work; I must read; I must write.” He’d repeat the phrase again that April in a letter to his sister, complaining that he had “written nothing and almost read nothing – but I must turn over a new leaf.”
Due to my unfortunate tendency to self-identify with whomever I’m reading (“OMG, Keats, I know EXACTLY what it’s like to have your work rejected and then mooch off your friends because you have no money. WE ARE THE SAME PERSON.”), Keats’s desire to “turn over a new leaf” resonates as I prepare for a new semester of graduate school in the new year. While our situations are slightly different – constructive criticism of a seminar paper not quite as devastating as the complete and utter failure of a published book – his mantra for self-improvement sounds eerily like that of a graduate student: “I must work; I must read; I must write.” In the spirit of turning over a new leaf, and hopefully transforming that Endymion-esque seminar paper into a Lamia, I present to you my academic resolutions for 2014. I should note that many of these will be obvious to the more seasoned scholars among you, but for all of you newer grads out there, I hope you’ll find my mistakes instructive.
Resolution #1: I will develop arguments from texts instead of making texts conform to my arguments.
This one seems easy in theory, but it’s something I’ve been struggling with throughout the semester. I’ll read one text – Endymion, let’s say – and then a bunch of criticism, and its reviews, letters, etc. Then, I’ll develop an idea about how Keats’s later poems revisit the same genre and politics as Endymion, but ultimately rewrite them. Except, I’ll form this connection even before I’ve read the later poems, just because it sounds so smart and will make such a good paper. Then, I’ll set about writing the paper and finally get around to reading Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and other poems (1820), and only then will I realize that the texts interact in completely different ways than I had originally thought. Of course, there’s not enough time to completely rewrite my paper, so I stick with the argument, praying that the reader doesn’t realize I made this crucial error.
So, simply put, I resolve to stop doing this faulty method of research. I’m going to let myself be confused by texts, and stop trying to develop beautiful, complex arguments before I’ve had time to fully read and think about them. If a brilliant idea pops into my head before I’ve done this, I’ll write it down, set it aside, and consider it later. As a wise professor once told me, “Always start with close reading. If you leave it till the end, it will always most certainly change your argument.”
Resolution #2: I will accept that I am, first and foremost, a student.
A wise man (Michael Gamer) once told a group of English majors, “graduate students are full of themselves.” I hate to say it, but I’m living proof of this. I started graduate school last August under the impression that I was a Romanticist. In my undergrad days I was merely an “aspiring Romanticist,” but starting a Ph.D. program gave me the right to crown myself with the full title. Once I was accepted, I thought that I had made the transition from student to scholar, and deceived myself into believing that I knew more about my field than I actually do. Thankfully, the enormous ego that Michael prophesied was soon deflated when I realized a few weeks into class that, in fact, I know very, very little about the period in which I claim to specialize. Of course, this realization was accompanied was a decreased sense of self-worth, doubt about whether I was in the right line of work, and a frantic conversation with my advisor in which I dramatically exclaimed, “I KNOW NOTHING!” “That’s ok,” he assured me, “you’re a student, and you’re not supposed to. Frankly, you’d be surprised how many people in the field don’t know much either.” So, for 2014, I resolve to remind myself that I’m not a scholar yet; I’m a student. I will accept the limits of my knowledge while doing my best to expand them.
Resolution #3: I will overcome writing anxiety.
This problem plagues many of us, and it’s one of my biggest areas for improvement in the new year. Sometimes, the sheer size of what I need to write, the nearness of the deadline, and difficulty of the subject matter create a Kafka-esque paralysis in which no writing is accomplished. I can tell I’m experiencing this when I go to extra lengths to avoid starting a paper, whether it’s extra research, extensive outlining, or a meticulously organized Spotify playlist entitled “Writing.” As many of us know, talking about writing and thinking about writing is not actually writing. The only way to overcome this problem is simply to write more. At the advice of many of my peers, I plan to write everyday, especially while I conduct research. There were simply too many times this year when I was tempted to end my seminar papers in the way that Milton ended “The Passion” (1620): “This Subject the Author finding to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished.” I’m pretty sure only Milton could pull off that one.
Resolution #3.5: I will write my blog posts on time.
This probably should’ve been number one. Thank you, Jake and fellow NASSR grads, for your patience.
End of the Semester Writing Woes
As the end of the semester approaches (ASU’s last day of class is April 24th!) so too does an intense dose of anxiety and stress. As graduate students we have a LOT on our plates. Not only does the end of the semester signal grading a lot of composition papers and assigning final grades, but it also signals something even more treacherous: PAPER WRITING. A non-graduate student friend of mine called the other day and asked me if I was so excited that classes were almost over, my response: Excited?!? No, I am not excited, the fact that classes are over in a week means I need to write two seminar papers AND grade. Although she definitely did not deserve my tirade, it made me recognize how unique our situation as graduate students is. We love what we do, I LOVE WHAT I DO, but around this time of year I tend to forget that I am supposed to be enjoying this time of my life. I started thinking about why I feel this intense anxiety and pressure at the end of the semester, and from talking with so many of my peers, I know I am not the only one who feels this way. I know (or pretend to know) I am a competent writer and beginning scholar, right? I mean we all are in a graduate program so we have to have done something right along the way to get accepted. But why do we forget this come the end of the semester?
While sitting with one of my professors and talking about my final semester paper, I just said, “Ahh! I am so anxious about this paper that I don’t even know where I am going to start!” And, like all great professors, he recognized my high level of stress and calmed me down. He reminded me that the point of a PhD program is to produce scholars, the future of the field. He emphasized the word “produce”, and that no one expects us to be perfect right away. All of the work we do should be aimed or have the ultimate goal of being useful in the future, but all papers, seminar papers that lead to portfolio papers, papers that hope J to lead to publications, papers that lead to chapters in a dissertation, all papers have to start somewhere. And more importantly, they are never perfect on the first try REGARDLESS of the level of the writer. Everyone, even those untouchable Gods of Romanticism we work with on a daily basis, has to review, revise, and rework papers. My professor reminded me that this is a “first draft” of a paper and to give it my best, but relax.
Relax…as much as I wish I could relax, at least I walked away from the conversation with a much better perspective about the end of the semester paper writing rollercoaster. We are all students working incredibly hard to master our trade and each semester is a stepping-stone towards the ultimate goal. But it is just that, a step towards the goal, not the goal itself. So as I prep and begin to write my two seminar papers I am remembering (or attempting my best) to breathe, relax, and enjoy the process of becoming a scholar knowing that my papers will not be perfect by the time I submit them and that is okay because ultimately, it is only a “first draft” of something that can be so much more.
(My first fun read of the summer will be Daisy Hay’s biography of the Shelleys, Byron, Keats, and friends called Young Romantics, and I am excited to tell you all about it next month ☺)
Comprehensive Exam Preparation
This is my exam semester. When I began my PhD in West Virginia University’s program “exams” existed in an intangible future; now, they are here. No matter the format, no matter the number of texts on your list, the comprehensive exams are one of the legendary hurdles of obtaining a literature PhD. Critical to your success, exams help prepare students to tame the beast that is the dissertation. At various conferences over the past 6 months I’ve discussed exam format with peers from Massachusetts, California, Illinois, Colorado and Oregon—all over the country in a range of programs and concentrations; each institution formats their exams differently. The exam narrative, however, is largely the same: a feeling of dread coupled with excitement about the prospect of reading the materials related to their project for those who have yet to take exams and for those who have completed exams: relief for having them behind them but a knowledge that the dissertation holds its own challenges and intellectual rewards. It is a rite of passage that seemingly few would ever choose to relive. As I’ve prepared for my exams the process has been incredibly educational—not just because I’ve immersed myself in critical discussions regarding the constructions of gender and sexuality in Romantic and Victorian England or varying theorizations of ‘error’ but also because I’ve (re)discovered a great deal about my work process and ability (and sometimes lack thereof) to deal with the anxieties and stresses of examination.
Here are a few things I wish I’d known beforehand or did know, but lost sight of in the process:
1. Keep track of how you spend your time. One thing I found frustrating about the exams was the absence of tangible progress. Yes, I could cross a book off of the list. Yes, each book I read helped me to further understand what I wanted from my scholarship. Yes, I now have a clearer idea of what kind of book I’d like to publish in the future. All of these things are well and nice but they aren’t very helpful today. Reading and taking notes for your exams can feel like running in place sometimes. I like the tangible outcomes of my work, and I am sure I am not alone. A seminar paper, an article, a presentation, a talk, a curriculum: these are all concrete productions of the work many of us do. The comprehensive exams are disconnected from their outcome: passing the exams, writing the dissertation. To help you see how much work you are doing and how you are spending your time, keep a work log. A spreadsheet in Google Docs is ideal because you can access it anywhere through your Google account. It has been helpful for me to see how many hours I’ve devoted to exam preparation (and to other things like course preparation, grading, publication, conferences, etc.).
2. Letting yourself down is not the same as failing. When I wrote my reading schedule last February my plan was to finish reading by late May. I poorly estimated how much time it would take me to read the texts for my exams; I found the reading process to be different than what I’d experienced in the past. I wasn’t prepared for the additional hours I’d spend taking notes, trying to synthesize the texts and write cogent summaries that would serve to refresh my memory months after completing the book. I couldn’t have known about the reading rut I would hit in April. When I crafted the schedule in February I was enthusiastic about reading 12 books on the history of England from 1789-1850…and the semester had just started. My enthusiasm waned around book 7 and mid-terms distracted me with a seemingly never-ending stack of grading. I didn’t meet my schedule. I had to learn that this was okay. I had plenty of time to finish reading; I had plenty of time to study before my exams. I had not failed (even if I felt like I had). I’ve discovered through this process that while knowledge of the material is certainly important, the knowledge gained regarding my own habits as a worker, reader, writer, teacher, and scholar has equally useful and important value.
3. Help yourself avoid distraction. When I first started reading I found myself wandering down various research paths inspired by my materials. Rather than finishing a chapter I would investigate a footnote or, curious about a possible gap in research, look for scholarship on the topic. In other words, I would find seemingly productive (even tangentially related) ways to pass the time without actually working on the task at hand (finishing the book, preparing for the exams). About half way through Susan Wolfson’s Borderlines, the third book I read for my exams, I decided to keep a “Distraction Relocation” journal. It is a just a spiral bound notebook but in it are all of the questions and future projects that I’ve identified during my exam reading. Rather than finding all of the scholarship on errata sheets, a distraction I full-heartedly considered while reading Seth Lerer’s Error and the Academic Self, I jotted down a note about how it might be interesting to investigate how errata sheets were used in Romantic print practices (and whether their use differed between literary periods). The thoughts I’ve labeled here as ‘distractions’ are important and I’m certain that at least two things that made it into my “Distraction Relocation” notebook will find a place in my dissertation project. My notebook helped me to keep track of these thoughts without allowing them to derail my progress.
4. Stay in touch with your community. During exam preparation it can be easy to excuse hermit-like behavior. Fight against the impulse to hole up in your office or house; instead, stay in touch with your community. Do not feel guilty for spending time at lunch with friends. Keep in contact with your director(s) and mentor(s). Talk to people about the process and find out what works/worked for others.
5. Find healthy ways to release the stress and pressure of exams. Exams can cut off your social life if you let them; they can also be a catalyst to putting you at the bottom of your to-do list. It can be easy to excuse poor health habits because you are so busy: skipping out on your exercise routine, foregoing fresh food choices for easier, quicker options. I learned to love running as I prepared for my exams. It gave me a place to clear my mind, to release any of my anger, frustration and anxiety, and reminded me that exams are not everything (which can be a difficult thing to remember in the middle of the process).
6. Schedule the exams. Concrete dates on your calendar and on the calendars of your committee are an effective way to keep yourself in check. The earlier you do this the better, for at least two reasons: 1) Once the dates are set you can’t go back, motivating you to stay on schedule, and 2) Your committee members have busy schedules; the earlier you schedule your exams the more availability they will have.
7. Your committee is on your side. You have selected a group of people to support you and your project, to provide feedback and offer critical suggestions to improve your scholarship. They are all rooting for you; they want to see you succeed.
I’m sure there are other things that should be added to this list. What do you wish you knew about the comprehensive exam experience before you took/take them? Do you have any bits of wisdom to share?
'Tis The Season to Apply for Research Fellowships
It’s that time of year… and no, I don’t mean for busting out the Holiday music (for that please refrain until after Thanksgiving. Thank you.). This, my friends, is the season to consider applying for research fellowships! With so many thrilling archives around, full of material ripe for analysis, it would really be a shame for scholars like us not to use them in our research—especially because libraries often offer us money to do so! Both short- and long-term fellowships are available at many major libraries and archives, and although some of these are reserved for scholars who already have their doctorate degrees, others specifically aim to help PhD candidates complete their dissertations or research for a specific article they plan to publish.
Of course, to get a fellowship you have to apply, and the competition is stiff—which is exactly the reason I’m posting about it right now. If you’ve found a specific archive with which you want to spend some quality time, it behooves you to start NOW, drafting your application and asking people to write your letters of recommendation. For the libraries I’ve looked at, most fellowship application deadlines fall between December 1st and March 1st.
I’m still new to writing research fellowship applications myself, but I’ll pass along a few pieces of advice I’ve been counseled to keep in mind. They’re pretty intuitive, but worth mentioning nevertheless.
First, define your target. There’s no sense in visiting a specific archive if it doesn’t have the materials that will be useful to you, or if those materials are also available somewhere closer to home. Also, libraries will see no sense in supporting your visit if you don’t have a specific project for which to use their materials. Thus, it’s imperative that you clearly articulate both the nature of your specific research project, and what role the library’s holdings play within that project. The former is (I think) one of the most challenging things we do in this profession, but the latter is pretty easy to manage: comb through the library catalogues and start making lists of items you would look at if you could. Although many library catalogues are not comprehensive, searching them and making wishlists will help you get the lay of the land, so to speak, and plan future academic projects and research trips, whether or not you get the fellowship. In your application, mention some of these specific items from your list (and check in Worldcat to make sure they’re not also at the library of your home institution!).
Second, know your audience. Most committees assessing applications consist of librarians whose job it is to match their knowledge of the library’s holdings to projects that will use these holdings to develop exciting new ideas. Even if readers do have training in your field, it is unlikely that they will be experts in your specific area. Therefore, your project description should eschew all jargon, so as to be lucid and interesting to an intelligent general reader. Preserve your sense of the project’s intervention and be specific about what’s at stake, but craft it for people who are not necessarily Romanticists. (This is a useful skill to hone for the job market as well!).
Third, write with authority. While avoiding jargon, show that you have a solid understanding of what your work will accomplish, as well as the competence to accomplish it. Avoid passive voice: instead of saying “It will be demonstrated that…,” go for “I will demonstrate that….”.
Fourth, specify expected outcomes. What will this fellowship enable you to do? Finish a chapter? Complete an article for publication? You don’t need more than a sentence or two, but you should show that your research will result in production of a tangible piece of scholarship. Your readers aren’t going to pay you just to think about stuff—they need to know your work is going somewhere.
Fifth, organize, organize, organize. Most of these applications are quite short, meaning you must pack a serious punch in very few words. Have a thesis statement, clearly articulate your project’s intervention and importance in your field, and be as clear and precise as possible. Ask colleagues and professors to read your proposal, and then be willing to revise (sometimes repeatedly). Again, whether or not you get the fellowship, this process is useful just for your yourself! It will help you comb through the tangled web of thoughts and find the golden thread that holds it all together—the ultimate quest of any project, right?
There are big, comprehensive archives, and small, specialized archives, so I thought we could start building a list of favorites! Below I provide links to three fellowship-offering biggies: huge institutions with something for everyone. But there are so many others! If you know of a great archive, or have experience using it (like Michele at the Huntington, or Jacob at the Yale Center for British Art, or Kelli at the British Library), please leave a note in the comments!
Newberry Library (Chicago, IL) – Dec. 12, 2011
Huntington Library (San Marino, CA) – Dec 15, 2011
Beinecke Library (Yale) – March 2, 2012 (also, they have a Fall application in October)
Others for you to look up, or comment on: New York Public Library, McNeil Center for Early American Studies, The American Antiquarian Society, Winterthur Library, the Library Company of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Dumbarton Oaks Library, the Getty Research Institute, Kew Library (Royal Botanic Gardens), RHS Lindley Library. . . .
Again, we’d love to hear your recommendations or personal experiences with any useful archives! Thanks for sharing.
Happy Application Days to All!
Using the British Library
I’m sitting in the Rare Books Room at the British Library, waiting for my book requests to be filled…and it occurs to me that this is the perfect time to record my impressions of my first time using this amazing, if somewhat intimidating, repository of the world’s knowledge. Six years ago I came to London to research for my MA thesis, fully intending to use the BL – but I chickened out. When I found a smaller, specialized library that met all my research needs at the time (and where I got well-enough acquainted with the librarians that they recognized my face the moment I walked back in their door last week), I ended up simply staying there; I just never mustered the gumption to face the gauntlet I knew lay between me and the books at the BL. This time around, though, I’m happy to report that I’ve faced my demons. I thought I’d use this idle book-awaiting time to give a brief crash-course on using the Library, perhaps to save you your own book-awaiting time, and definitely to help assuage the trepidation you, like me, might have felt about this imposing institution.
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO BEFORE YOU VISIT:
Before you ever arrive in London, there are many things you can do to prepare yourself, and streamline all the registration you’ll need to complete before gaining admittance to the books. First, visit the library’s website, and browse their catalogue. (Note that the catalogue is on a different site than the library’s homepage; it took me awhile to find it). Try to come up with a firm idea of what you’d like to look at (it’s helpful to make a list, so you can pace yourself when you arrive). Since your time at the library will probably be limited and valuable, you want to do your best to make sure you’ll be looking at things you can’t get closer to home.
Second, Register for a reader’s pass online. This will get you started on the process; you actually complete it after you arrive at the library. Keep track of your assigned reader number – you’ll be asked for it often.
Third, when packing your bags, make sure you pack the necessary forms of identification with you! You need two forms of ID validating your name and current address (like a driver’s license and passport, if they have your current address), plus something that indicates your affiliation with whatever cause (like a student card from your University that shows you’re a graduate student). If you’re using the manuscript library or some of the rarest items, a letter from your advisor on official university letterhead is also helpful. Online you fill out everything that the application asks for, and then, again, keep a record of the number they assign you, as well as the password you select for your account.
Finally, request the books you would like to look at, for the days you want to look at them. Do this through the catalogue page, after you’ve logged in as a registered reader. This will save you the trouble of waiting the minimum 70 minutes (or up to 48 hours) it will take if you request after you’ve arrived. You don’t need to do this far in advance; even a couple of hours will work… but especially for your first day or two, you might be happy to have a plan. Once you’ve made your requests, the books can be held for you for three business days (this includes Saturdays). When you request, make sure that you really have completed the requests; you’ll know because completed requests are highlighted in yellow. Anythong not completed will be lost after you log out.
When you request books, you’ll be asked which room you’ll be reading in, and which desk number. You can know which room by the category of materials you’re examining (see the library’s website for a description of each room), and you can just make up a desk number (98 is mine, today); they’ll ask you your real desk number when they actually hand the books over to you.
WHAT YOU DO WHEN YOU ARRIVE:
Bring the necessary identification with you. Bringing it to London won’t do you any good if you leave it in your hotel room.
Find the Library. Chances are, you’ll be coming in on the tube, from the King’s Cross/St. Pancras Station. This can be a bewildering station, since it’s really two train stations and an underground station all connected together. I’ve been here several times now, and this morning got turned around all over again. Look for the exits to Euston Road, and don’t be shy about eyeing the map at the station exit in order to get your bearings when you surface. If you’re like me, then you’ll (usually) exit right between King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations, facing Euston Road. Hang a right, and walk past St. Pancras station. Pause to admire its incredible architecture. The next building down seems rather nondescript, but it’s the outer circle of the BL courtyard. Turn right to enter it, and marvel at the oasis that suddenly exists in the middle of what seemed, at 10am, to be one of the noisiest streets on the planet.
Find the entrance to the library, stop to let the (very polite) security guard look in your bag, and proceed to the info desk to ask the way to Reader Registration.
This office will begin to give you an idea of just how many folks use this library, and how they oil the machine, so to speak, to regulate access to the collections. You wait in the queue (love that word!), and then if you’ve begun your registration online, you’ll be directed to a computer kiosk to complete a few final steps. Then, you get a number, and wait a few minutes for it to be called. When you’re up, you sit down with a library officer, who will check your driver’s license (or other document indicating current address), your passport, your student card (if you have one), and any letters of reference you might have brought with you. If everything checks out, you’ll have your picture taken for your Reader Pass. They print the pass out then and there, and you keep very good track of it! You will be asked to show it regularly.
With your pass in hand, you’re now ready to proceed downstrairs to the locker room, where you can store all the things you’re not allowed to bring into the reading rooms: that is, pretty much everything but a pencil (no pens!), paper, a laptop, and your glasses. You will need a £1 coin to work the lockers, but you get it back when you leave each day. When you’ve secured your things, grab a clear plastic bag from the table, to hold all the stuff you’re bringing with you, and head to your reading room.
The rare books room (or whichever room you’re supposed to read in)
Show your reader pass to the security guards on your way in. Find a seat. Notice whether the desk allows personal computers. Sit down and (if you haven’t already), browse the catalogue and order your books (free wi-fi! Yay!) Note that it will take 70 minutes for them to arrive, so sit and muse over your research notes, or maybe work on your blog post for the week. Begin to feel awkward that you’re the only person at your table not actually looking at books. Wait a while longer. Begin to wonder if you actually aren’t supposed to wait for your books to come to you, but that you’re supposed to go get them. Watch other people around you to see what they do. See people walking back to their desks with their arms full of books. Go up to the service desk, see a queue labeled “Book issue and return”, and wait your turn to sheepishly confess your ignorance to a staff member and ask if your books have arrived. Accept gentle teasing with your armful of books, and return to your seat. You did it! Now, feel those butterflies madly swarming in your tummy as you gently leaf through your aged, musty-smelling, delicate books. EEE! This is so cool!! Wish that you could squeal out loud and shake your neighbor by the shoulders. Restrain yourself, and get to work.
Now that I’ve been using the library for a few days, I laugh at myself for being so intimidated by it. I’m still learning some of the ropes, but the daily basics are really simple: order books from home, get to the library, stick my things in a locker, and go to the reading room to pick up my books and read. “Easy peasy”, as my librarian friend might say. And beyond the books themselves, it really is fun to be here, to take a look at all the people poring over dusty tomes, and wonder what interesting things they all are working on. Plus, you just never know who you might run in to: while I was standing in line to collect my books a few days ago, the girl in front of me looked very familiar. I finally just said, “I think I know you. What’s your name?” Turns out we met last August at the Vancouver NASSR conference! Small world. So here’s a shout-out to Tara from Toronto, who probably was never nervous about using the British Library. Hope I run into you again someday soon.
And amid the myriad other things you are probably up to, I wish you all some happy summer researching! Feel free to share your own library recommendations and tips for research success.