Off Topic: I love the British Library

Slightly off topic – but this makes sense if anyone has seen my last post in which a missing part of a knitting pattern from a vintage copy of the Lady was tracked down and scanned at the British Library.

OMG Such Fun

Did you know you can contact the British Library, become an official “reader” and place an order to view any knitting magazine? They pretty much have all of them, which is so exciting to me. Or even every issue of Vogue or Weldon’s Ladies Journal. I need more vintage magazine titles so I can look them up (ok I’ve got a page full already). I’m wondering if they have all the free sewing patterns that were given away with magazines and all the supplements like the Vogue Pattern Book or Weldon’s themed catalogues like this fancy-dress issue. Being a reader is like a library member, but you can’t take anything home and have to have a small interview in the Reader Registration in which you explain why you need a card. I said I was blogging about knitting patterns from the twentieth century and surprisingly they said OK, you can come in! The nice lady even said “You are going to have so much fun”. There are rules like no pens, scissors or glue allowed, personal objects must be taken into the special reading room in a clear plastic bag and security guards check you for books on the way out of the room too.

Every book with an ISBN number has to have a copy at the British Library, so they also have any pattern book too. You can search through their catalogue here . Alas many knitting patterns were just leaflets from yarn shops and department stores, so they don’t have everything, but probably enough to keep me visiting and scanning for the next 50 years. Anyone got any request for specific patterns, magazines or time periods?

Visiting But Not Becoming a Reader

People who visit museums and art galleries might never think to visit a library, but at the British Library they put on great exhibitions. My favourite exhibition was Out Of This World, which told the history of sci-fi, from utopian ideas in Ancient Greece and Gulliver’s Travels, via gothic horror to today’s fiction. They displayed lots of books, as you’d expect, but some of them were amazing, like the tiny handwritten stories by the Bronte sisters when they were children and original manuscripts. Other exhibitions have been on Gothic art, architecture and literature, The Georgian period of english history, Underground comics and currently story of the Magna Carta.

They also have a permanent exhibition space for sharing the Treasures of the British Library, which includes a handwritten Alice in Wonderland given to the inspiration for Alice and an original Gutenberg Bible.

It’s worth going in just to try the food and look at the amazing stacks of books behind glass in the main atrium. I just checked the website and apparently there are four places to eat, so I’ll have to investigate the other three. The first time I went, I presumed some librarian would be at the door checking that you had a good reason for going in the building and security guards. In fact they have restricted access reading rooms, so you can’t wander around the shelves, but you can wander around the public areas and there is even a gift shop.At the moment there are loads of students studying and using the superfast internet (so many there was even an article in the Times newspaper about academics finding no seats due to GCSE and A-level students flooding in).

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Any vintage fans might appreciate a little vintage reading. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading some of the books printed by the British Library which I got at the gift shop. These vintage books originally printed between 1920 and 1960 are a great way to pick up on what life was like for every day people and learn more random things, such as there being a special ladies waiting room at railway stations or people’s attitudes towards new fashions. In one book, Murder Underground, there is a passage in which a younger women in 1930s explains to her mother/landlady (I forget which) that wearing lipstick is actually quite respectable nowadays and doesn’t mean the woman in question is “fast.”  Unfortunately that particular author, Mavis Doriel Hay, only wrote three books but there is a whole series of crime classic reprints from other authors , plus her three. You can get them at the gift shop at the Library or online from their shop or from Amazon (even Amazon in US I believe). I managed to miss the detective fiction exhibition a few years ago – bugger! – but at least it prompted enough interest that more titles have been reprinted every year. Here are my top three:


  1. How fabulous! I can imagine you wanting to be there all the time. So many patterns, so little time….

  2. I am reading Murder Underground right now, and read the other two just before that! Cant find her third book though. I am more than a little excited to learn about the British Library. I would have loved to have seen that crime fiction exhibition, didn’t hear about it.

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