I am sitting at 291 in Rare Books and Music – that’s seat 291 in one of the British Library’s reading rooms. Opposite me at the same oak and green leather desk are two students, both of whom are reading books, checking their BlackBerries and looking at their Apple and Acer computers. You wonder, how much more multi can tasking get? Then there’s a phenomenon called ‘noting’, a form of anonymous flirting in the more popular reading rooms, Humanities I and II, or Hum One and Hum Two, as they’re called. You’re seen, then there’s a note on your desk, you have no idea who did the noting. Nor do the guards at each reading-room entrance who have cameras that spy on every desk, but they’re incredibly quick if you pull a pen from a pocket.

The British Library, interior

Yesterday I ran into J who was drinking coffee with her friend B; today I meet P, an American friend who has been trying to get a visa to live in London and who suggests having lunch at Chilli Cool, a Sichuan restaurant south of the Euston Road popular with Chinese students in London, many of whom arrive by cab. But I can’t because I’m already busy. Q, with whom I go to a Japanese restaurant on not-far-off Chalton St, rings to say he is with his children near where I live; I tell him I’m at the library. There are faces I recognise from dust jacket photos, but overwhelmingly I know no one at the British Library, and it’s only every now and then that it has a passing resemblance to an Eric Rohmer suburb where everyone seems to know everyone else and there’s trouble ahead because they do. It is early April, university Easter holiday time, which coincides with the writing of dissertations and exam revision: the reading rooms and the halls of the library are often full. There are 1200 seats in the reading rooms, around a thousand employees at the library, and each day there are several thousand visitors. How much noting is going on I don’t know. Several years ago, with the idea of making it more popular, the librarians dropped the membership age from 21 to 18 so that undergraduates could apply. Not that you have to be a member to use the wifi if you’re at one of the many tables and chairs that line some of the library’s thoroughfares, which are often bedlam. High-minded modernist ideas and aspirations may have driven Colin St John Wilson to design his building as he did, but it’s the unruliness of some who go there that makes it appealingly lived in.

Study describes what goes on inside, obviously – except, and equally obviously, when it doesn’t – but in its outward aspects the library is sturdiness itself, the more so when compared to the elaborate, sky-bound roof of its similarly enormous neighbour, St Pancras station. The library is surrounded by a number of large buildings, both old and new. Through the trellises on the cafeteria’s north-facing terrace is the building site of the forthcoming Francis Crick Institute, whose research laboratories will open in 2015: 1500 people are expected to work there. To the west is the Ossulston Estate, or the ‘Ring Road of the Proletariat’, as it’s also known, a Grade II listed housing project inspired by the very much larger Karl Marx-Hof in Vienna. To the east is St Pancras and the renovated King’s Cross. Sandwiched between the two stations is the campus of Central St Martins, the name given to the merger between the Central School of Arts and Crafts and St Martin’s School of Art. One of the criticisms made of the new library was that it would have no connection with the rest of the area – something you couldn’t say now. You’re surrounded by a lot of ‘highly curated distractions’, N says; she means there are numerous ways to not go to the library. You’re also surrounded by a lot of young people.

‘No bloody good’; ‘a Babylonian ziggurat seen through a funfair distorting mirror’; ‘the assembly hall of an academy for secret police’: these were a few of the drive-by appraisals of the new library when it opened, the last of them Prince Charles’s. Who knows what a secret police academy looks like, and no espionage academy I’ve heard about has two copies of Magna Carta, whose 61st clause allows for a committee of 25 barons to overrule intrusive monarchs.

There’s what you read because you need to read it; there’s what you read because you need to be distracted. This morning there’s what you read to know a bit more about your surroundings. I ordered Wilson’s The Design and Construction of the British Library. It was to be built so that it lasted at least two centuries: this was one of the broader specifications handed to Wilson after he accepted the job as the new library’s architect in 1962. Another consideration was no less temporal: ‘This job may take quite a long time to get done,’ he was told by the committee that selected him, not because the building work would take an age but because the arguing over where and how the national collection of manuscripts, books, maps, recordings etc should be housed would be protracted. Astute advice: it took as long to plan, build and complete the new BL as it did to finish Wren’s St Paul’s, and whatever you think of Wilson’s design, it’s to his credit that he finished the building and that it works as well as it does: there aren’t many people whose perseverance extends over 35 years.

Had early plans for the library gone ahead, when the idea had been to keep it in Bloomsbury close to its original home within the British Museum, then the London Review’s offices on Little Russell Street, to the south of the BM, not to mention all of the surrounding buildings, apart from Hawksmoor’s church, St George’s, Bloomsbury, would have been demolished long before the paper was founded. As it was, the BL moved north to land owned by British Rail.

Fifty years after Wilson began his work, fifteen years after the library opened, there’s little obvious alteration to its exterior – no let-up on the relentless, red-brick redness of it all. The library looks as if it might last a lot longer than 200 years, but the clumsy courtyard might not. The crazy health and safety signs at the top of the stairs leading to the public entrance, the signs that say CAUTION STAIRS, aren’t as crazy as you might think. The surfaces of the stairs and of the uneven forecourt, built of red brick and white travertine marble, make those steps easy to miss. In the rain, the white marble becomes slick enough to trip up a sure-footed person. Wilson had high hopes for what he called a piazza. Eyeing St Pancras in the 1990s, knowing the station would eventually become the terminus for trains from Paris, Brussels and elsewhere, he thought it would become a ‘threshold to and from Europe’, a place where passengers gravitate before or after a journey. There’s nothing colder than a summerhouse in winter, and calling a forecourt a piazza doesn’t make it any warmer.

Fortress-like wouldn’t be an inaccurate way to describe the library, and it does protect a lot in special atmospheric conditions. Wilson lists some facts and figures in his appendix: the temperature of the reading room remains the same 21°C in summer and winter, and the humidity is 50 per cent, give or take five points – depending on how many people are inside. The books are stored at a constant 17°C. There are 38 lifts, 71 lavatories, and the roofs are made up of 50,000 Welsh slates.

‘I can think of no more fitting way to signal the start of the information age,’ said the chairman of the BL Board, John Ashworth, when the new library opened in 1997. I didn’t own a laptop computer in 1997, I remind myself, and Al Gore’s information superhighway was a new term, but Ashworth was far-sighted. In early April the library announced it would keep a record of all pages of websites with a ‘.uk’ suffix in their URL. As one of the librarians told Wired magazine, ‘in the four hundred years we’ve been archiving newspapers we have collected 750 million printed pages. With the digital archive, we’ll be collecting a billion web pages in a single year.’

I’ve never especially liked working in libraries, and that last detail doesn’t make this library more welcoming. H sends an email saying it’s lunchtime, and that we should meet at the stairs – by the signs that say CAUTION STAIRS. It’s warm for the first time this year; people are sitting in the piazza, which is looking very much more piazza-like, though I can’t be sure anyone has arrived hotfoot from the Eurostar. H and I decide to go to St Pancras to have lunch, and look at trains heading south.

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Vol. 35 No. 10 · 23 May 2013

Inigo Thomas is too kind to the British Library (LRB, 25 April). The architectural problems aren’t limited to the exterior. They’re even worse in the reading rooms themselves, where the open-plan layout allows all the noise in the service areas – bleeping from electronic scanners, ringing telephones, fax machines, conversations between staff and readers etc – to go straight out into the reading areas, causing constant distraction and irritation.

Of course the collection is great, and for many readers that’s all that matters. Excellent too are the staff in the reading rooms. But it isn’t a library that’s kind to serious readers. Letting in undergraduates means that every spring the reading rooms are swamped with intruders who aren’t doing research at all but merely swotting course textbooks before exams – and annoying readers (and library staff) with their adolescent antics. This cynical bums-on-seats policy has caused no end of bad feeling. Nor is it the only example of management’s disdain for core users. Undergraduate exam periods apart, most of the noise in the reading rooms is caused by the library’s own equipment and staff: yet it refuses to install silent scanners or non-ringing telephones. Concerts in the piazza are so heavily amplified that the noise disturbs readers in the reading rooms – but not the managers, who consider the endless events and sideshows ‘just as important’ as the library itself. Those of us who work in the traditional humanities are particularly badly treated. Consider the open-shelf displays of scholarly journals in the reading rooms: they include current issues of hundreds of scientific and technical journals, social science journals, and even librarianship journals, but not one journal in literature, history, philosophy, religion, art history or musicology. When a reader proposed setting up a display for journals in these subjects, management flatly denied there was any need for it. Still more upsetting is the grossly defective digital catalogue. It not only fails to incorporate the printed subject indexes from the pre-digital period – a major omission – but inexcusably fails to inform readers of that omission. This has deprived unwitting readers of thousands of relevant references and caused serious damage to their research.

James Obelkevich
London NW5

Vol. 35 No. 11 · 6 June 2013

British Library users such as James Obelkevich, who deplore the current accessibility of the library to the young and eager and pine for the days of narrow exclusivity when tickets were limited to what he calls ‘core users’ need to be reminded how unpleasant the old regime was, and how improved the new management is in most ways (Letters, 23 May). When my first reader’s ticket expired in 1978, just after I had finished my PhD, I went to the BL to renew it. There I was subjected to close interrogation by a young librarian who hissed and snapped at me as he fought every inch of the way against allowing me into the BL again. Although I was a mild and civil supplicant, he was one of those jealous, possessive librarians who resent anyone with the impertinence to order books from their collections or to finger them. Grudgingly, he issued me with a new card. Then, as I moved to leave the room, he danced out from behind his desk, confronted me at the door, and shrieked in my face: ‘Just because you have been allowed a reader’s ticket today, don’t think you will ever be issued with one again.’

Obelkevich complains about bleeping scanners, trilling telephones and murmured conversations between readers and library staff. I have never been disturbed by any of these in the BL, although I am occasionally distracted by the tut-tutting, indignant shushing and petulant slamming down of pencils by neurasthenics trying to enforce the silence of a padded cell.

Richard Davenport-Hines
London W14

Many BL readers apparently find it impossible to turn laptops to ‘mute’ before entering reading rooms; hence, we are bombarded with Microsoft and Apple jinglings, with laptops opening, closing, emailing and so forth. Some readers sniff their way through their researches and – worse – even use fingers as tissues, the fingers then turning the pages in mucous delight.

Peter Cave
London W1

Vol. 35 No. 14 · 18 July 2013

My experience of applying for a British Library ticket in the days of scarcity makes for an interesting comparison with that of Richard Davenport-Hines (Letters, 6 June). The application form was awkward: I was not preparing a thesis; nobody sponsored me; my qualifications were modest. My need was simple: to consult Paul Hamburger’s translation of Das Brandopfer by Albrecht Goes, a work about the Holocaust that I had recently translated myself.

Disappointed applicants were regularly extruded from the interview room. Eventually I was sat across a desk from a stern middle-aged woman, whose head reminded me of a tank turret. I smiled, handed over my form and explained that a ticket for one week would suffice. She sniffed. I then produced a letter from my local library advising me to apply to the BL, which held the only copy. Her head swivelled towards the paper, eye-slits glinting ominously. I murmured that I could make do with a one-day ticket if need be. ‘Sit back!’ she suddenly barked. There was a flash and a whirr and she passed me a five-year ticket, content I suppose with supplying the opposite of what I had requested.

Roger Morsley-Smith
London W4

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