In July 2010 I traveled to the United Kingdom to spend 10 days at the British Library to work on the map collections of the English East India Company (1600-1858). The British Library is the state-of-the-art National Library of the United Kingdom and is located in the heart of London. The Library holds 14 million books, 920,000 journal and newspaper titles, 58 million patents, and 3 million sound recordings. The building was the largest public building constructed in the UK in the 20th century and is made up of 14 floors (9 above and 5 below) with a total area of over 112,000 square meters.
The map collection I worked on belonged to the India Office Records—the archival holdings of the East India Company (1600-1858)—pertaining to the survey and mapmaking activities of the Company in the nineteenth century. In particular I examined British maps of the Anglo-Nepal frontier and the Revenue Surveys, both from the nineteenth century. I also examined a number of indigenous Nepali maps lying in the Hodgson Collection (Mss Eur K474, volumes 56 & 59) collected by Brian Hodgson Houghton, the British Assistant Resident and later Resident in Kathmandu (1820-1844). Finally, I unexpectedly came across some old 17th century Dutch and Portuguese maps of port cities and the western coastline of south India which formed the historical stage for the activities of some branches of my family (I am trying to write a family history as well!). It was a nostalgic moment for me as I wondered about the encounters between these European seafarers and my ancestors who traded along the coast.
I stayed at the nearby Highbury Center (http://www.thehighburycentre.org/) which is a few minutes away on the London tube (or subway). Registering myself as a researcher was quick and painless, and very soon I was on my way to the India Office Reading room on the third floor. A typical work day at the Library would begin at 9.30 am and end at 8.00pm. Requisitioning documents is processed online, and so, to save time, I did most of it the night before from my hotel room (this meant that my work day would extend itself well into the night!!). The availability of wireless in the reading rooms was a new experience as it brought the resources of the internet into the reading room. I found myself navigating online bookstores, archives, and articles in a manner that directly informed the research process.
All in all, the time spent at the British Library was an intellectual feast. The luxurious atmosphere at the library (the state-of-the-art and tastefully decorated facilities, reading rooms, exhibitions, bookstore, coffee shop, and lounges) and the friendly staff added another dimension to the usual excitement of working in an archive. Chance encounters with old friends, and the food and conversations that followed were the icing on the cake. I can’t wait to get back to the British Library, and in the meantime if you are passing through the city of London, please visit the BL on my behalf! Or at least visit the BL online at http://www.bl.uk/