Library badges of honour

Unflattering mug shots are now part of most library cards.
Unflattering mug shots are now part of most library cards.

I collect library cards like badges of honour. I’ve got some I’ve had for a long time – from the British Library, the Bodleian and an out-of-date one from Cambridge University Library. Of course, I also have a CARN (County Archives Research Network) ticket and one for the National Archives.

More recently, I have also acquired some foreign ones from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, the Archivio di Stato in Florence and the Archivio Segreto and the Biblioteca Apostolica in the Vatican. It’s like collecting stamps, just sadder – and the picture, if there is one – is always of me.

In the age of digital photography this means I have also acquired a collection of unflattering mug shots of myself, though some of them have admittedly been taken in nice locations.

Most recently, I’ve been to Rome and the Vatican to see if my republican exiles left any traces in the eternal city in the 1660s and in particular in the records of the Roman cardinals, whom Henry Neville (1619-94) learnt to flatter and Algernon Sidney (1623-83) appears to have been on first-name terms with.

The entrance to the Archivio Segreto.
The entrance to the Archivio Segreto.

It’s quite an experience to get inside the holy walls of the Vatican. The first time around (armed with application material and letters of recommendation etc), I had to convince the Swiss guards that I had a sufficiently legitimate reason to enter and then leave my passport with the Vatican police to go and get my reader’s ticket. Once you have got your tessara for the Vatican Archives or Library, you just present it to the guards each morning on your way in and you are fine.

I must say, I’ve never seen a better-organised depository than the Archivio Segreto. While there is no online catalogue, the staff (numerous, friendly and helpful) make more than up for it. If you are standing around looking a bit puzzled – as I frequently do – someone will immediately ask you what you are looking for, and if they can help. Usually they can.

Once you’ve found your way around the Index Room and the hundreds of volumes of indeces lined up on the shelves, including the handlists converting old signatures into the corresponding new ones, you can order up to three items a day. That is usually enough to keep you going until the library closes at 1pm.

This is where normal people go on a sunny day in Rome.
This is where normal people go on a sunny day in Rome.

The only annoying thing – for non-Romans – is that you have booked an expensive research trip, with a hotel ideally in the vicinity of the Vatican included, and the archive is closed in the afternoon. In extraordinary circumstances you can get a special permission from the Prefect to work there in the afternoon as well. But I don’t think I’m important enough. So it’s best to coordinate your archival work with some work in the equally excellent, stunningly beautiful and newly refurbished Biblioteca Apostolica next door, which is open until 5.15pm.

Alas, they only take orders before 12pm, when you are still working in the Archivio Segreto… You see where this is going. But it is all in the planning. You need a way to finish work at the Archivio before 12pm, so you can go and order something in the Biblioteca for the afternoon. I have been wondering if it is ok (while you are still checked into the Archivio) to just walk across the Cortile della Biblioteca, which is shared by both institutions, to do that, but I have not tried.

The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma.
The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma.

If all fails, there is also the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale near Termini Station, where you can work until 7pm, or a range of university libraries. Alas, Italians know how to live. So you will hardly find a place that is open – for work – beyond 7pm. But by then it’s time for an early evening drink anyway.



By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.


  1. So glad someone else is a anal as I am. I still have use undergraduate library card for my university despite having been a member of academic staff for 20 years. They keep asking if I’d like it changed to a nice new plastic one, but I say no thanks, I’ll keep this one. I think it annoys them as the university has had two further name changes since I first got my card! I have Bodleian, BL, Downside Abbey Library and Archive, Simanacas, Nottingham and several more. Like you say – a badge of honour. Would love a Vatican Library card.

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