By the time this copy of the LRB reaches you the new British Library at St Pancras will be open – or rather, the Humanities Reading Room will be. For the Rare Books Reading Room you must wait until February 1998, for the Oriental and India Office Collections Reading Areas until August, and for the Manuscripts Reading Room until January 1999. The Science Reading Room opens in mid-1999.
Will it be all right? Will we be happy there? Well, here’s one thing not to worry about. I thought there would be no more slips to accumulate. I know people who would be worried by this. In the hands of a truly constipated scholar these carbon copies became a lifetime tally of books requested. It could even include books never seen – requested but not delivered for one of the reasons ticked on the back of the slip (lost, bombed, being bound). How could a request filled in on a computer screen produce a carbon copy? Fear not.
Here’s how you go about getting a book. First you find a seat, establish residence, and claim your place at one of the screens which stand waiting. These give access to the catalogue. You search for the titles you want to look at. If you have been using the Round Reading Room you probably already know the computerised catalogue, but things are a little different now. You no longer fill in the details of each book on a form and pass that through a little window. Instead you build up a shopping list on screen. When it is complete you click on the button which pipes your requests into the bowels of the building. Here they are printed out as a series of labels. Subterranean beings take these labels, find your books and load them into deep plastic trays. (It is hard when this part of the process is described not to think of a lost race, of folk under the hill, particularly as the mythology of the old library includes tales of parties held so deep in the Bloomsbury basement that one drank on the very banks of one of London’s lost rivers.) The trays, with the help of the barcodes on their sides, which are read as they pass up through the building, are sped to your reading room. There, sitting in your handsome chair in front of your leather-topped reading desk, you watch for a light to come on in the panel in front of you – the light stands alongside the plug for your personal computer, the switch for your reading light and a mysterious communications socket, the connection for a yet-to-be-implemented electronic information conduit. The light comes on. It is time to go to the counter and pick up your books. And there, tucked into each of them, is a little label with your name and seat number, the book title, press mark and so on, all printed out. So much for slip nostalgia.
This is just one of the ways in which the habits of one of the old libraries have been incorporated into the culture of the new building. Now that reading rooms once scattered all over London – humanities, science, information technology, business and so forth – are all under one roof, different cultures will rub up against one another. A patent agent who has spent his time among the open shelves in the old Science Reference Library may fetch up beside a scholar who has worked equally long on manuscripts but has never seen as much as a hundred running feet of them shelved together. There will still be a kind of hierarchy – although you can ask for a general book in the Rare Books Reading Room, you can’t do it the other way round – but your modern novel or work on fish stocks can be delivered to any seat. If the general reading room is full you may be directed to free space among the Orientalists. Or among the patent agents, where you will observe, enviously if you are used to the books-as-you-ask-for-them protocol which holds on the humanities side, that an open-shelf culture has been maintained. There will of course still be many books on open shelves in the other reading rooms. They are there already and it gave me some comfort when I was overcome by the sense that I was too scruffy to be in here at all, to see their familiar worn bindings and thumbed pages.
From the reader’s point of view, all these changes are in a sense quite small. You will still find your seat, get your books, read, note and, if you are not very unusual, eventually yawn, doze, wander and scan the room for an acquaintance to drink tea with. What is very different is the lavishness, the pomp almost, of the ambience. Are we really up to it? It is all very well for Bernard Shaw and Karl Marx (even for Mandy Rice-Davies and Jeremy Paxman, who the Library, a little coyly, include in the list of celebrated readers they hand out to the press), but most readers are not famous or notorious; some of us are vague and dilatory – doubtful about our right to take up space which might be used by a more single-minded worker. There are even true scholars, men and women who never doze or wander, who would find it easier to say why they found their particular kind of knitting interesting than to justify it on broad grounds of public utility. So it is obvious why patent searches and medical research paper analyses sit more convincingly at the head of a request for funding a building like this than, say, the serious pursuit of butterfly subjects – emblem books, fugitive verse or the details of histories which are seen to be more insignificant as their complexity becomes more engrossing. But the building is splendid – tastefully splendid, but splendid none the less – and I guess we will just have to learn to live up to it.
Its pedigree seems to be Scandinavian/International – herbivorous humanist Modernism. God knows how its critics found it ‘totalitarian’. It has something of Alvar Aalto in the interior spaces, the use of light, and the way the parts pile up to the climax of the clock tower. The woodwork reminds me of the interiors of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in San Diego. The finishes and the flow of spaces have something of the generosity of the circulation areas of the Royal Festival Hall. But it is only a new building in the sense that it is just finished. It has been too long in the making to have the freshness of something like Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim. It would be absurd to make this a reason for underestimating its old-fashioned virtues: there are things which were done better then. And political questions remain to which no clear answer can be expected: will it be finished or will the unused half of the site eventually be sold off? Will it go on being free to users? Has it enough seats for all those who have reason to use it? If the answer to any of these is ‘no’ one could charge the planners with extravagance.
A sense of ceremony has been introduced to a world of subfusc eccentricity and earnest endeavour. It strikes you as soon as you pass through the portico and cross the great courtyard. (Perhaps I am not the only person already a little overawed by the new building: ways are being looked for to let in something more homely – poets are to be encouraged to perform here and dealers in old books to put up their stands.) You feel it even more strongly when you pass into the high, light entrance hall. Compare this with the narrow passage which leads into the old Reading Room. The entrance to the British Museum is, of course, grand – and so it should be with so many stone gods and goddesses to house – but the way into the Reading Room itself was modest. You seemed to be going to a secret place hidden within a public one; the sudden exaltation of the huge domed space was, for this reason, all the more remarkable. You get something of the same effect when you enter a cathedral by a door in a side porch. But cathedrals do have great doors into the nave for God’s grander occasions. The Reading Room was a secular space and only had entrances on the human scale.
All of the new building is more imposing than you would guess looking at it from across the Euston Road, where its sloping roofs and general subservience to the station hotel next door give no hint of the scale and complexity of what lies inside. But the entrance hall is particularly so. It reaches up through floors of reading rooms, it is crossed over by high walkways and is penetrated from top to bottom by a glazed shaft (at first glance you might think it housed the lifts) which will contain the King’s Library. Shelves of leather bindings which used to line the walls of the grandest room in the British Museum will meet the demand of the original bequest – that the books be kept together – in a display which will theatrically demonstrate this fact. As well as the fact that old books have readers. The shelves are mounted close to the glass walls of the shaft. Looking up, the public will be able to see a section of leatherbound volumes wheeled back in order that an assistant may take one out.
This is not, like the New York Public Library (and, to be fair, few others), both a great library and a truly public one. Only readers who have qualified for passes will get through the turnstiles (to be operated rather as the gates on the Underground are). For some this will be a new experience. Those who have been going in and out of the Science Reference Library without a pass will have to prove their need. For those readers who have little to show for the hours they spend here – how do you prove self-improvement? – the pale oak, travertine, black leather and brass, the comfort and grandeur, may bring a twinge of guilt. If the intention had been to site the library in a place which would emphasise the spectrum of privilege/misery in this country no better could have been chosen.
To the north of the Euston Road – previously New Road (built to divert herds of cattle heading for Smithfield away from Oxford Street) – we are out of Bloomsbury into Somers Town. Away from stuccoed squares now occupied by small hotels, students, the LRB and the institutes of London University, into engineering on a Piranesian scale: great glazed train sheds which would dwarf even the dome of the old Reading Room, the high arches of King’s Cross, the skeletal frames of gasometers, derelict railway land, tenements and cobbled streets – locations in which movie-makers find images of rough old London or its just as rough modern equivalent. Here you do not see, as you do in Bloomsbury, one kind of use passing gently into another, smartness giving way to bohemian gentility. Something more violent is taking place. Plans are grander and contrasts are greater. The land behind the stations was to be – perhaps still will be – used for new office and housing developments to rival Docklands (so far as I know no one took seriously a better suggestion: an urban racetrack, London’s own Happy Valley).
A new hotel is filling the stripped shell of the council offices overlooking the courtyard of the Library (Paolozzi’s Newton-out-of Blake presents his back to it). If guests from that hotel walk along towards the railway stations they will become aware not just of the roaring tide of traffic which fills the six lanes of the Euston Road – all routes, all lines seem to finish up here: the visiting scholar can leave his or her plane at Gatwick or Heathrow and be brought (no changes required) right to the Library door – but of the human flotsam that tide throws up. The Salvation Army have their social services headquarters only a few hundred yards from where drug-dealers, drunks, beggars and girls on the game provide opportunities for saving souls and models for any modern Piranesi who seeks to give scale and raffish drama to images of the monuments which lie to the north. I pass this way every morning and evening as I go from the flat where I work to the station. From my kitchen window I can see, through roof-top railings and chimneys, a scrap of Library wall – blending perfectly, now the bricks have begun to weather, with the Gothic façade of St Pancras. (This bit of good manners has done the reputation of the Library little good, perhaps because the dark red and Gucci green of the window furniture and sun-breakers make it seem more aggressive than the same material used next door.)
The Library is a new neighbour and I wonder how it will get along with the others on the street. There is one irony: the new library has come from a building of 1857 which is left a national treasure with no very clear future other than being treasured; next door to the Library is the Grand Midland Hotel in a similar limbo – its best hope is to find itself again as a hotel when the Channel Tunnel rail terminal is achieved. We seem to want to have our buildings and rebuild them too. This can’t go on for ever.
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