Welcome, researchers! This guide will answer common questions about researching at the Boston Public Library. The majority of the information here focuses on the Central in Copley Square. It is our main research library.
Whether you are a Massachusetts resident or a visiting researcher, you can access materials at the Boston Public Library. We have a variety of departments. The availability of resources depends on where they are located. In other words, we have a lot of different things, and they can be located in a lot of different places! We want to make finding them a little easier.
Some helpful links:
Some things to keep in mind:
Here are some tips for researching at the Boston Public Library. Of course, you can research in whatever way suits you. These steps highlight how you can get your ducks in a row to get ready for your research.
What if you don't know how to start?
We can help! The best thing you can do is contact us ahead of time at email@example.com. Let us know what you're researching and the kinds of resources you're looking for. Also, ask us any questions you have about where things are located or how to access materials. You might want to look around our catalog, online resources, and research guides to get an idea of the kinds of resources are available. You can also call us with quick questions at 617.536.5400.
Our hours are:
What do you need to do ahead of time?
The most important thing you can do is think about the kinds of resources you want to see, such as journal articles, books, or newspapers. You might know exactly which items you want to see, or you might just have a general idea. The library is a huge building, and materials are located in a bunch of places. Knowing what you're looking for will make it easier for us to help you. If you find something in the catalog that you like, write down the title and call number, so we can help you find it.
Where do you need to go?
The Central library has a number of departments, and it can be helpful to know where you might want to visit ahead of time. Take a look at our service areas and department hours. We have a number of specialized departments at Central, and we also have general reference desks that can help with a variety of subjects. If you're unsure of where to go, you can talk to a reference desk to ask which departments can help with your research.
This page is to give visiting researchers an idea of what they can expect while researching at the Boston Public Library. A "visiting researcher" is a patron who is visiting from outside the state of Massachusetts.
First, it is a good idea to contact the library a few weeks ahead of your trip to make sure the collections you want to see are accessible. The library has a number of resources in closed stacks/storage, and our departments have varying hours. The best way to contact us is by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do I need a library card?
If you want to view items that library staff have to get for you, such as the Delivery Desk, microfilm, and Fine Arts materials, you will need a research card. You can find out more about them here.
Can I use the library's databases?
Yes, only at the library. As a visitor, you cannot use our databases outside of the library. You can use them on any library public computer and also on the library's Wi-Fi with your own device, such as a laptop or tablet. You can also use most of the databases on a catalog computer, which are spread out in the library. Catalog computers only have access to the library catalog and databases. They cannot be used to browse the Internet.
Does the library have Wi-Fi and Internet access?
Yes, you will need a guest pass to access our public computers. Talk to library staff near the computers you need to use to get a guest pass. If you have your own device, the library's Wi-Fi is free and available to all patrons. The Wi-Fi network is BostonPublicLibrary, and a pop-up window should appear shortly asking you to confirm you want to connect to our Wi-Fi. If the pop-up does not appear, try going to our website, www.bpl.org.
How can I print or save things?
Central has several areas with computers you can use to search the Internet, which you can learn about here. As a visitor, you can make a Pay4Print guest account to print and make copies. The library also has a digital KIC scanner that can send scans to your email or a USB drive. Take a look at the box on Printing, Copying, and Scanning for more in depth information.
The Boston Public Library's Central Branch in Copley Square spans an entire block! There are two buildings which are connected: the Boylston Street Building (enter on Boylston Street) and the McKim Building (enter on Dartmouth Street), also known as the Research Library. The latter building is named after the prominent architect who designed it, Charles Follen McKim. The Boylston Street Building was previously referred to as the Johnson Building because it was designed by architect Phillip Johnson.
The library's accessible entrance is through the Boylston Street Building's entrance. The McKim Building's entrance has several stairs leading to the doors.
You can see a map of the Central Library here. The gold building is the McKim Building, and the gray building is the Boylston Street Building.
The McKim Building is the building facing Dartmouth Street, and it is often referred to as the "old building" because it was built first.
The Boylston Street Building is the building facing Boylston Street. It is often referred to as the "new building" because it was built more recently.
A library card is for Massachusetts residents only. With a library card patrons can:
How do I get a library card?
To get a library card, please bring:
If you have a Massachusetts driver's license, that counts as both a photo ID and proof of address.
You can get a library card at any Boston Public Library branch.
At Central, you can get a library card at these desks -
What is an eCard?
An eCard is an electronic library card. It is for Massachusetts residents only. An eCard allows patrons to use only electronic resources. Electronic resources are ones that are online, such as eBooks and databases. You cannot check out hard copy materials with an eCard. We can switch an eCard into to a regular library card at any Boston Public Library branch. You will need a photo ID and proof of a Massachusetts address.
How do I get an eCard?
To get an eCard, sign up using this online form. You will receive an email with your eCard number.
What is a Research card?
A research card is for visitors who live outside of Massachusetts. It allows visitors to look at in-library use only materials. This includes materials from the Research, Fine Arts, and Microform collections. You cannot log into a public computer with a research card, and you will need a guest pass. Ask a library staff member near the computers for a guest pass.
How do I get a research card?
To get a research card, come into the Central Library at Copley Square with a picture ID. You can get a research card from two desks:
Your PIN is the password for your library account. It is a 4-digit number that is set up when you get a library card. For most things, your library card number is your username and your PIN is your password.
What is a PIN used for?
You need to know your PIN when logging into a library site, such as:
eCards also have PINs to access electronic resources such as databases and eBooks.
While you do have to create a PIN when you make a research card, the PIN is not used for much. You will need a guest account to use the computer and print at the library.
What if I don't remember my PIN?
You can reset your PIN. Take a look at this page about resetting PINs. If you have logged into your account on our website at least once, you can reset it online. If you have not set up your online account, you can email email@example.com to have it reset. You can also reset your PIN in person at any Boston Public Library location.
The library catalog is how you can see what the library has. It contains information about the items at the library, such as the title, author, description, and location. Look at the Boston Public Library's catalog here. It is also available as a search bar at the top of the library website.
To search the catalog, type in what you are looking for. The default is to search by "keyword," and you can use the drop-down menu to search other fields, such as "title" or "author." After you click the magnifying glass or hit "enter" on your keyboard, the search will run.
A list of results will appear, and you will probably need to filter it to find what you are looking for. You can filter using the panel on the left. Some filters to look at are "Available Now" (if you want to only see items at a specific library), "Format" (such as "book" or "DVD"), and "Titles I Can..." (if you only want items to take home).
The catalog will show all of the items available at the Boston Public Library, including our 25 branches, several affiliated libraries, and numerous research departments. Keep in mind that an item that is marked as "Available" in the catalog just means it is available somewhere in the library system, and you will have to check to see if it's available at your local library. The steps below will help you find out where an item is located.
If you only want to only see items at a specific location, you can use the "Available Now" filter to choose location(s).
In the results list, if an item is available somewhere in the library system, you will see green text underneath the title that says "Available." You can see which locations it is available at by clicking "view details" beside the green text.
Clicking "view details" brings up a window with the availability information, and they are categorized by where they are. First, you will see items that are available to take home and that are "In."
Below that box, you will see other copies, such as ones that are "Checked Out," "Held," or "In Library Use Only."
When you click a title in the catalog, you can see more information about it.
For example, with this book, the information on the center of the screen tells us general information about the book, such as the title, author, year, and a description. The box on the top right tells us about that book at the library, specifically the locations where you can find it and the call numbers.
The box on the top right of the page tells you where the item is available. "On the shelves now at" gives you a snapshot of the libraries that have it marked as "In." You can click the drop-down arrow beside the first result to see all of the results. You can also click "Availability by Location" to see all the libraries that have it.
The online catalog is the one you are probably most familiar with, which is the search bar on our website that you can use to search for materials. For older materials, you can use the old microfiche catalog.
What is the card catalog?
Card catalogs are what libraries used to keep track of the collection before computers were invented.
What kinds of things are found in the card catalog?
The Boston Public Library's catalog contains older materials, from 1974 and before.
Why would I need to use the card catalog?
While it may seem like everything is on the Internet, not all of our older items have migrated to the online catalog. If you're looking for something that was published before 1974 and it's not in the online catalog, you can check the card catalog to see if it's there.
Where can I use the card catalog?
The card catalog is on microfiche, which means the cards have been put on film. This is because the cards themselves took up an enormous amount of space, and putting them on film means they take up a much smaller amount of space. The card catalog is on a shelve in the Washington Room. You can ask the librarians for help.
I found something in the card catalog. Now what?
It will be in closed stacks where someone has to get it for you, but it can be in a few different places. Take note of the item's title, call number, and location. The location will tell you where it can be requested from.
When researching the library's collections, keep in mind that most of our research collections are in "closed stacks," where someone has to get the materials for you. These types of materials are usually in library use only, which means you have to use them in the library and cannot check them out. You need a library card or research card to request all closed stacks materials.
Why is something in closed stacks?
There are many reasons an item could be in closed stacks, such as if the item is hard to replace, rare, or it's our only copy. The biggest reason is that we don't have enough space for everything to be out in the open!
How do I see something from closed stacks?
The procedure to see these kinds of items depends on where they're located. You'll see more detailed explanations on the other tabs in this box. The general way to request materials is by submitting a request to the department, either online or by handing in a request slip.
How long will it take to get the item I want to see?
The answer to this question is that it varies by department. The exact timeframes can be found in the tabs for each department. It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several days.
The Arts collection is the noncirculating collection for Fine Arts and Music. You need a library card or research card to request Arts materials. The Arts materials are picked up at the Delivery Desk.
The locations for these items will say "The Arts" or "Music" in the catalog, and these items are in library use only.
How do I request Arts items?
Take a look at their webpage, under "Requesting Arts Materials," for more information. The Arts items have to be requested ahead of time. They cannot be retrieved on demand like some other departments. Requests for Arts materials must be made electronically, either through the library catalog or with a reference librarian. You will need to talk to a reference librarian for materials without online records, such as items in the microfiche catalog and periodicals that are not cataloged by volume. When your item is ready, you will be notified by the method attached to your library card (an email, text message, or phone call). You have a week to pick it up after you receive the notification that it's being held, and you can pick up your item at the Delivery Desk.
How long will it take to get my items?
The wait times for Arts items varies from several hours to 72 hours. Most items are available within a few hours. Older items can take up to 72 hours. These items must be cataloged and given barcodes, which on a weekday can usually be done the same day. However, items requested after 4pm will be ready the next day at the earliest, and items requested after 4pm on a Friday will be ready on Monday at the earliest.
Because the wait times vary so much, it is a good idea to place your holds using the library catalog and then wait for the notifications that they've been placed on hold. Then, you can make one trip to the library to view them.
Can I take Arts items home?
No, you cannot check out Arts items to take home. They are all in library use only.
The Delivery Desk is where you can request many items in closed stacks. The location for the item will be listed as "Central Delivery Desk." You need a library card or research card to request Delivery Desk materials.
How do I request Delivery Desk items?
To request items from the Delivery Desk, you need 3 things: the title, call number, and your library card or research card. The Delivery Desk can also make you a library card or research card, if you still need to get one. You will fill out a request slip with this information (one slip per title), give it to the Delivery Desk, and library staff will go retrieve your items for you. The item(s) will be brought to that desk.
How long will it take to get my items?
Allow at least 30 minutes for Delivery Desk items to be retrieved. Times can vary based on the number of items you request and other patron requests.
Can I take Delivery Desk books home?
Mostly, no, but there are some exceptions. Most of the items located at the Delivery Desk are in library use only, but a small percentage of recent books are circulating (meaning you can check them out). Serials (like magazines and journals) do not circulate.
You can tell if an item is in library use only by looking at the item's collection.
It will say "Nonfiction - In Library Use Only" if it has to be used in the library. It will say "Nonfiction" if it can be checked out to take home. The item on the right has two copies at the Delivery Desk - one that is in library use only and one that is circulating (that you can take home).
Is there a way to take home a Delivery Desk book that is in library use only?
You can request a Delivery Desk book be made to circulate (so it can be taken home) by placing an interlibrary loan request for it. The easiest way is to place a ComCat request for the item. The library will evaluate each request, and we will let you know if your request has been approved or denied. A request could be denied for a variety of reasons, the most common being: the title is difficult to replace, it is out of print, or it is in poor condition. Some materials will never be allowed to circulate, such as: serials (such as magazines and journals) and family histories.
The Research Services desk in the Washington Room can help you find or request Government Documents materials. Most Government Documents materials are in closed stacks and have to be retrieved for you. You need a library card or research card for items staff have to get for you.
How do I know something is a Government Document?
Government Documents items will list their location as "Social Sciences" and have "Gov Docs" in the call number.
How do I request Government Documents?
You will fill out a request slip with the title, call number, and your library card or research card number. You will give the request slip (one per title) to the Research Services desk, and someone will retrieve the item for you. The item will be brought to that desk.
How long will it take to get my items?
Allow at least 30 minutes for your items to be retrieved. Retrieval times can vary based on the number of slips you request and other patron requests.
Can I take Government Documents books home?
No, you cannot check out Government Documents books to take home. They are all in library use only.
What does a digitized link mean?
Many Government Documents have been digitized, and the library tries to link to digitized copies whenever possible. You will find these links in the catalog record. If a link is available, you will see it in the availability details of the item's catalog record. The link will be near the bottom, underneath the call number. This title is an example of an item with a digitized link.
Microfilm can be requested from the Research Services desk in the Washington Room. The microfilm collection used the most is newspapers. There are 4 computers with microfilm scanners, which can be used to view microfilm and microfiche. You need a library card or research card to request microfilm.
How do I request microfilm?
Microfilm can requested from the Research Services desk in the Washington Room. To request microfilm, you fill out a request slip with the title, call number, and dates/volumes you need. You will also need to provide your name, library card or research card number, and your city/state. Then, you will be signed onto a computer, and library staff will retrieve your film for you.
What if I don't know what microfilm is or how to use it?
We can show you how to use it! Microfilm is a reel of film with images on it. It's used because it can store a lot of information in a small amount of space, and the film is more durable than paper.
Is microfilm keyword searchable?
No, microfilm is not keyword searchable, and you will have to read it like a book or newspaper. For newspapers, you will have to request specific dates. It is a good idea to have an idea of what time you need to research, such as the dates around an event.
How do I know what newspapers you have?
You can look up titles in the library catalog, but it can be difficult to tell exactly what years we have. The lists on our newspaper research guide are an easy way to see what titles we have.
How long will it take to get microfilm?
Allow at least 30 minutes for microfilm to be retrieved. Times can vary based on the number of items you request and other patron requests.
Can I print or email things from microfilm?
Yes, you can print or save digital files from microfilm. Saving digital copies is free, and printing costs 15 cents per page. Take a look at the printing tab for more information on printing. If you are making digital copies, think ahead of time about how you want to save them. You can put them on a USB drive, put them in an email, or save them somewhere digitally like Google Drive or Dropbox.
Is there a limit to how many I can request?
You can request up to 6 reels of microfilm at a time. If you need more, you can return the film you have and submit another request.
To view materials held by the Rare Books Department, you can now make an appointment online. More information is available on the Special Collections Department web page here.
If you need Internet access at the Boston Public Library, you have two options: public computers or our Wi-Fi on your own device. Public computers are desktops that can be used for Internet access and research. There are a few places to access computers, and some of them are only for research. Take a look at our technology FAQs here.
Library branches also have laptops that can be checked out for in library use with your library card. Central does not have any adult laptops at this time.
Some things to keep in mind:
Adult public computers are located in three places at Central: Tech Central for general Internet access, and the Kirstein Business Library and Bates Hall for research access. If you need assistance, there are desks with library staff located near each of these computer areas.
How do I sign in to the computers?
You will need a username and password to log into a public computer. If you have a valid library card, your username is your library card number and your password is your 4-digit PIN. If you are visiting, have a research card, or have an eCard, you will need a guest pass to use the computers. To get a guest pass, talk to the library staff at the desk near the computers you need to use.
How long can I use the computers?
Computer use is first come, first served. You can use most of our public computers for up to two hours. This time can be extended at the discretion of our staff if no one else is waiting. If you will need longer than two hours, you should talk to our staff at the computer location you want to use to see if your time can be accommodated.
Where can I use the Internet?
For general Internet access, you can use the computers in Tech Central. General Internet access is use that does not include research, such as Internet browsing, social media, email, and online shopping. Tech Central is located on the first floor of the Johnson Building, toward the back and behind the elevators.
Where can I use computers for research?
The computers in the Kirstein Business Library and Bates Hall are for specialized research only.
The Kirstein Business Library computers are for business and job related research. The business library is located on the lower level of the Johnson Building.
The computers in Bates Hall are for genealogy, government, newspaper, and microfilm research. Bates Hall is located on the second floor of the McKim Building.
Wi-Fi at the Boston Public Library is free and available to anyone who is at the library. The Wi-Fi network is called "BostonPublicLibrary." Once you connect, a confirmation window will pop up, and you can confirm to get on our Wi-Fi.
Some tips for using the library's Wi-Fi:
All Boston Public Library locations have public access to printers and copiers. Copiers can make print copies and also scan documents to an email address. Additionally, Central has two digital KIC scanners that can make free digital copies. You can find answers to some common questions here.
To pay for printing and scanning, you add funds to your print account using the red Service Kiosks. Please see the next tab for more information.
The Boston Public Library does not have fax machines.
You add money to your print account using the red service kiosks. Each branch has a service kiosk, and there are four at the Central Library: in Tech Central, the second floor of the Johnson Building, the Washington Room, and Bates Hall. If you have a library card, that is also your print account. Guests can make a guest account. You need your library card and PIN to log into the kiosks.
How do I log into a kiosk with my library card?
At a kiosk, scan your library card barcode or use the keyboard login to enter it, and then enter your 4-digit PIN (password). You will see your Pay4Print account balance at the top of the screen. Click the button to add funds to your account. You can either add cash like a vending machine or swipe your credit or debit card. At the end of the transaction, you will be asked if you want to print a receipt.
How do I make a guest account?
Go to a red service kiosk and click "Create Pay4Print Account." Add the funds you would like start with, and when you are done a receipt with a temporary username and password will print out.
What can I do at the kiosks?
You can add money to your printing account, and you can pay library fees.
What types of payment do the kiosks take?
The kiosks take cash and credit/debit cards (Visa and Mastercard). They do not take coins. The minimum amount you can add at a time is $1. You can add additional funds to your library card or guest account, and they have to be a minimum of $1 each time. You can choose an exact amount using a credit/debit card, as long as the amount is over the minimum of $1. The kiosks do not give change, and the library cannot make change for you. Unused funds will stay on the account for future use.
Printing can be done at public computers at Central, and mobile print is available on some laptops. You need a library card or guest account to print.
How much does printing cost?
Printing at the library is priced per page. Black and white prints are 20 cents per page. Color prints are 75 cents per page. Every month you get $20 of free printing
Where and how can I print?
The public computers can be used to print. Printing is a two-step process. When you print something, you will be prompted to enter your library card or guest account number and your 4-digit PIN (password). This puts your prints in the queue. Your account will not be charged at this point. Next, you can release your prints from the queue at a print release station, and they will print. You will be charged for your prints after they are released. A print release station is located in Tech Central, Bates Hall, Kirstein Business Library, and the second floor of the Johnson Building.
Can I print from my laptop?
Yes, it is called mobile print. It only works with a library card, and it will not work with guest accounts, eCards, or research cards. To use mobile print, go to mobileprint.bpl.org. Log in to your account, and upload the document(s) you need to print. Once you have uploaded your documents, you can release them using a print release station.
Copying can be done at the Xerox copiers throughout the library.
How much does it cost to make copies?
Copying at the library is the same price as printing. It is priced per page. Black and white prints are 20 cents per page. Color prints are 75 cents per page. You must prepay for printing at one of the red service kiosks. You can add money to your library card or create a guest account. These copiers can also scan pages to an email address, which you can find out about on the digital scanning tab.
Where and how can I make copies?
Each branch has a copier, and there are several at Central: Tech Central, the second floor of the Johnson Building, near the Delivery Desk, Bates Hall, and the Kirstein Business Library. At the copier, click "Alternate Log In," and you will be prompted for your library card number. If there is a scanner attached, you can scan the library card barcode, or you can use the number keys to enter it by hand. After you submit it, you will be prompted for your PIN. You will see several options once you log in. Click "Copy."
Digital scans are ones that are saved digitally, either to an email address or on a USB drive. Xerox copiers can make digital scans for 5 cents per page, and the scans are emailed to an email address. There are also two KIC scanners at Central that are free to use.
What and where are the KIC scanners?
KIC scanners are made for books, and they can send scans to an email address or put them on a USB drive. These scans are free. The scanners can also scan loose paper by laying the pages flat, one or two at a time, on the book cradle. There is a KIC scanner at Central in the Washington Room.
How do I use the Xerox copiers to email documents?
After you log in to the copier, click "Email." From there, you can add email addresses you'd like the documents sent to. Pages scanned on the flatbed will be emailed in separate files. Pages put in the tray together will be scanned in the same file. You have to prepay for scans at the red kiosks, as you would with printing. You can add money to your library card or create a guest account.