I wrote the following during the last years of the British Library’s renowned Reading Room, which was situated in the heart of the British Museum. It was closed in 1997. Rest in peace.
* * * *
I made myself look as tweedy and professorial as possible, and I had a pre-interview snack of some English tea cake in hopes of getting my blood sugar into a proper state of servitude. Neither gambit helped much. I still approached the Reader Admission Office feeling like I’d been sent to the principal’s office
The jig was up. I was about to be revealed as the lifelong inferior student, quasi-rube, and dilettante scanner of books that I am. And I had so wanted the snooty British keepers of the printed word to think of me as I thought of them—erudite, serious, focussed, and scholarly. But there was no way around it.
If I was to obtain permission to use the British Library Reading Room as a “Reader”; to occupy space formerly filled by some of the greatest minds of all time; to have on my desk the selfsame books that Yeats and Shelley and Dickens and Thomas Gray and Dr. Johnson and other high priests of English culture had held in their hands and examined and loved and no doubt nodded over when the afternoon sun through the high windows of the great domed ceiling beamed down upon the afterglow of too much lunch at a Bloomsbury pub—there was no way around it. I would have to submit to examination of my background and character.
I figured I wouldn’t be granted a Reader’s Pass if I admitted that I just wanted to browse sundry topics, such as the Oxford Movement and the craft of the thriller, and possibly picking up the cold trail of Arthur F. Newton, a devotee of J. S. Bach, who in the early part of the twentieth century made his living by routinely whipping all comers in footraces as long as 2000 miles. (Actually that last topic was true research, clearly worthy of a Reader’s Pass holder, but it turned out the British Library, comprehensive as it was, had no materials on Newton). A fellow could use Tyrell Public Library in Beaumont casually, but it just did not seem to make me out as British Library Reader’s Pass material.
Neither could I tell them that I was simply looking for a library that had all the material I wanted in a single location. By using several different libraries in London I could no doubt find most of what I wanted, but that would entail a lot of travel from one to the other. London is a big city. However, since it is not the purpose of the British Library to make research more convenient, but rather to provide materials that are unavailable elsewhere, I kept this motivation to myself.
In the blank that asked what other libraries I had tried and found wanting, I filled in the names of about half the thirty or so collections listed in the pamphlet that is used to direct applicants to the less empyrean book locales.
And I sure could not make a convincing case for my use of the Reading Room by letting it be known that I just wanted to sit around and read in the hallowed area beneath the big dome while imagining the many eminent intellectuals and artists who had probably sat in the very chair I occupied.
Another improper reason I had for wanting a British Library Reader’s Pass was that the specialized branch libraries charge substantial fees. Actually, they charge only those who fail to fit into one of their several nonpaying categories: students or professors (at just about any institution) and graduates of an academic institution whose library one has found inadequate. A critical distinction is made between a professor on leave (“Right this way, Sir”) and a professor who is between academic appointments (“I’m afraid, Sir, that because you resigned your position before coming to England, the fee for your use of our library will be £16 a day.”)
So–to THE BRITISH LIBRARY APPLICATION FOR A READER’S PASS I appended a letter, deferential but stopping short of groveling, on top grade, cream-coloured, bond stationery of British A4 size (8.27 inches x 11.69 inches) that detailed (and embroidered ever so slightly) my academic credentials and an imaginary project. I loaded it with talk of semiotics, discourse analysis, stratificational analysis of original texts, the deep structure of the Middle English modal auxiliary; I deplored the sad lack of historical depth, not to mention breadth, of necessary material in other libraries; I took pains to use British spelling (see coloured above, for example).
I explained that while I am not now on the faculty of any institution of higher learning, in the past, I had been a professor at two prestigious universities (making no mention of the mediocre ones), including the University of Baghdad, which, I hoped they would realize, had been happily exploring the intricacies of higher mathematics and had a medical school hundreds of years before Oxford or Cambridge existed. I resisted the temptation to point out that this was a clear example of English cultural inferiority; these island people are touchy about observations of this sort.
Having thus prepared myself for the contest ahead, I opened the door marked “Reader Admissions Office.” It revealed a chamber that was far from the magical kingdom one might expect; just an unremarkable rectangular room with desks lined up around the walls, behind each of which sat a youngish, clerk sort of person who was taking care of customers and shuffling papers.
I had been in the room twice previously. The first time was for the purpose of signing up for one of the hourly guided tours of the library.
I concluded afterward, that if the rest of their operation was anything like the tour, this venerable institution could stand some work.
I went to the assembly point at the designated time, but since I was the only tourist, the young guide in his scruffy, student-style clothes declined to give what I supposed he could give, a prepared presentation. Instead, he offered to let me ask him whatever questions I liked. I wondered how he would do as a priest. On the Sunday following Christmas, would he just take questions due to lack of a quorum? I couldn’t think of much to ask him.
After an awkward period during which the two of us tried to find something to look at besides each other, I ventured, “Much damage done in the war?” In a British conversational pinch, one can always turn to their experience of the Hun for succor. “Only a bit.” I waited. That was all he had to say on the matter. He was Gary Cooper with a funny accent. I learned later that he was not only laconic, but also mistaken. The blitz had destroyed some 250,000 volumes, some of which were irreplaceable.
I was rescued by the appearance of a second tourist who seemed to have a special flair for the questioning. “Now,” pause, “where did Lenin sit?” That was followed by, “Where,” he cleared his throat, “did Marx sit?” The answer to both questions was “somewhere over there” accompanied by a wave in a northerly direction.
Warming to the competition, I smiled a charming and somewhat mischievous smile and asked, “What question are you asked most often?”
“The ones about Marx and Lenin,” he said with a shrug of resignation. He seemed to be on the edge of docent burnout. It was understandable, what with all that pressure and the long hours of practicing the presentation.
The second time I opened the door marked “Reader Admissions Office,” it was to get a copy of the pamphlet that listed the requirements for a pass. On that occasion, a gatekeeper at a desk just inside the door asked, “May I help?” I explained that I just wanted to pick up a publication from the rack in front of her. I did manage to ask if I could return the completed application for a Reader’s Pass by mail. I had in mind to avoid thereby being questioned too closely as to my true intentions for use of the library. No such luck. I could mail in the form, but no action would result until I made a personal appearance. I never did find out the reason for this. Perhaps the interviewers had special training in spotting those postulants who were likely to dog-ear pages or lick their finger tips before turning pages. Something about their shifty eyes.
When the moment for the interview came round at last, the clerk at the metal desk in the row of three on the north wall of the ordinary room took my form in hand and, looking a little surprised, said, “Oh, this is an application.”
I could make little sense of that response (no doubt a result of having grown up in a working-class family in a Southeast Texas refinery town). What was next? Nothing good; of that I was sure.
As the clerk began to read my carefully crafted letter, he smiled in an odd sort of way. That too alarmed me. But before he could have read more than a paragraph or two, he said, “Oh, this will be fine.” I was glad to hear that. On the other hand, I had rehearsed a lot of lines, prepared many arguments, and he, by God, was going to have to hear some of them.
“I suppose I may have…well, you see, I hold this institution in such respect…awe—”
“Oh, you mustn’t do,” he interrupted. “It’s just a bunch of old books.” I felt certain that he did not believe that. More likely he was just trying to say something calming before my overwrought condition caused me to get sick all over his desk.
He asked me to step over to the Polaroid camera, took my picture, and a few minutes later, I had a Reader’s Pass allowing me to use what Brits believe to be “the most famous research library in the world.” Not surprisingly, the photo—unlike any other ID photo I’ve ever had made—was smiling, happy, and, in my view, suitable for framing.
* * * *
The size of the British Library collection [150 million items as of 2015] is itself enough to impress, perhaps intimidate, most would-be users. In addition, much of the material is rare and valuable, some to the point of encouraging veneration. There are Lindisfarne Gospels, a Gutenberg bible, a Beowulf manuscript dating from 1000 A.D., two of the four earliest copies of Magna Carta, a First Folio edition of the plays of Shakespeare, the manuscripts, letters, diaries, and notes of what seems to be most important English writers, music manuscripts of composers as diverse as Handel and the Beatles, maps of many sorts, and a stamp collection containing eight million items. There are major holdings in sound and video recordings (including what may be the voice of Queen Victoria), newspapers, Oriental [sic] materials, and the India Office Library and Records.
Some of the most precious holdings are on display under glass, ready to be examined by the reader who may need a bit of inspiration.
All of the above are available at the main library location inside the British Museum. Other kinds of holdings are located at other locations, called “outhouses.” (This unfortunate Britishism is used as a verb also, as in, “We outhouse the medical journals.”)
To most people, “The British Library” probably means neither the outhouses nor the display areas of precious holdings inside the museum, but rather the great circular Reading Room located in its heart. The outhouses are libraries; the Reading Room is a shrine. For a book lover, few places on the planet have the solemn, liminal quality of this grand structure.
The current Reading Room, opened in 1857, is the seventh one the library has had since the British Museum was founded in 1753. It’s a rather simple structure, taking its seriousness from style and scale rather than from any intricacies of design. It’s a circle about 150 feet in diameter, with book shelves around the walls up to a height of about three stories, and capped by a dome that is almost the same diameter as the floor below and 106 feet high. Almost every surface that can be colored—floors, desks, chairs, walls, and ceilings—is sea green with gold-colored trim. The floor is furnished with spoke-like rows of desks, shelves of reference works, and catalogs. At the hub is an administrative station.
It is unlikely that anyone would ever think of this space as anything other than what it is—a great research library. It feels like a library and like nothing else.
During the day, the room is characterized by lively, though quiet activity. People move quickly. There is much furrowing of brows. Something–academic ambition, scholarly zeal, something–seems to create tension that threatens to outweigh the satisfaction of merely being there.
Then at about six o’clock the Reading Room changes. As readers leave, there is a decrease in the already slight amount of throat clearing, paper shuffling, and whispering. New readers arrive to do a bit of evening work—the library is usually open until 9:00—and the evening patrons seem more relaxed than the day patrons. Perhaps a day spent in commerce gives them a sense of peace from simply being in the library, a sense the full-time researchers of the day shift may overlook due to constant contact with the institution. But when evening arrives, even the day users who stay late seem to slow their pace.
My guess is that this diurnal transformation has something to do with the formative influence of the building. Whatever the reason, when light begins to come through the great windows of the dome at a slant from the west, it brings a singular calm.
During the evening hours, I become especially aware of the great persons who have preceded me in this place or in the earlier Reading Rooms. In my mind, I call the roll. Thomas Gray (who noted the “stillness and solitude of the Reading Room”), Sir William Blackstone, David Hume, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, Benjamin Disraeli, Dr. Samuel Johnson. That’s just the eighteenth century. The list grows in the nineteenth and twentieth. Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, William Makepeace Thackeray, Robert Browning, Charles Darwin, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Lamb, Robert Southey, Edwin Landseer, Matthew Arnold, George Meredith, Karl Marx, Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett, Samuel Butler, Mahatma Ghandi, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, and the most recent addition to the pantheon, Paul Willcott, from Beaumont, Texas, queen city of the Golden Triangle.
Sometimes I look about at fellow users (this time, ones who are present in body) and try to guess who among them will find a rightful place on a future all-star list of former users. I don’t see many likely-looking candidates.
There are some American professors, clearly marked as such by Brooks Brothers jackets, the occasional bow tie, and McGeorge Bundy-style glasses with clear plastic rims. I overheard one talking (quietly, of course), employing most artfully the hesitation pause, the American intellectual’s trademark way of indicating that he—uh—is reflective and—uh—uh—learned. Maybe Brits who want to seem smart do that too. I don’t know.
Seeing these academics takes me back, as does my discovery of a library staff member whose scholarship was central to an especially hapless episode when I was in graduate school.
I went to graduate school for a variety of reasons, including that I thought I could obtain thereby a role in life that would not entail being told what to do all day long. College professors answer to few.
But before reaching that level of autonomy, I was required to take certain courses, including one called “bibliography.” The semester was half finished before I realized that the course was not about lists of standard authorities, but rather about watermarks, paper, and ancient typographical errors. Professor William Todd, of the University of Texas, and his colleague at the British Library, Mr. R. C. Alston, the two of whom wrote our textbook, were renowned authorities on questions of textual authenticity. I made a C, a grade tantamount to failure in graduate school. But even that was better than I deserved.
The whole unpleasant experience came back to me the first time I walked into the Reading Room and spotted Alston’s name on a door. I chuckled and thought, “Professor Todd should see me now.” He did. He was at that moment peering at me over the top of a rare folio volume of something or other. He dropped his eyes and I dropped mine. I hadn’t seen him in almost thirty years, but he knew me, and I knew him.
By some mysterious mechanism perhaps having to do with the quasi-sanctity of the institution, I quickly realized that I no longer felt bad about not being a literary scholar. And it occurred to me that Professor Todd probably never gave me much thought anyway.
In addition to professors, the library has long accommodated eccentrics, ranging in quality from amateur to semi-pro to hall-of-fame level.
Thomas Carlyle noted that “there are several people in a state of imbecility who come to read in the British Museum.” I’m pretty sure the guy I usually sit by is one. He’s a middle-aged man with a white beard. He wears a shiny black suit to which he has added certain embellishments, such as five-inch bright blue plastic cuffs that are adorned with stripes and lions rampant. More of the same sort of decoration is attached to his coat pockets. He sports a black yachtsman’s cap gussied up with gold braid on the bill and pins and what not stuck around the crown. Standing tall on his desk amid heaps of handwritten notes (about what, I was unable to discover) is a large sign with a multicolored printed command to “DREAM ON.” He spends hours each day staring into the changing light of the great room, seeming to do exactly that. I feel quite close to this man, certainly closer than I do to either Professor Todd or Mr. R. C. Alston.
* * * *
Contrary to what the clerk said, the British Library is not just a bunch of books; it is an extraordinary bunch of books. Besides that, Readers have the incalculably great privilege of using them in a place perfectly suited to the purpose, and it’s located in the interior court of the British Museum. If the British Library were housed in a goat skin tent situated in the middle of the Sahara, it would still be sought after by lovers of books and learning, but its presence inside the British Museum makes it enormously more powerful and attractive. Readers experience the benefit of that in a variety of ways.
Even without intending to, Readers connect with the past just by being in the building. Example. The nearest place to the library to have coffee or lunch is one of the Museum’s cafes. To get there requires walking through a couple of shops that sell Museum publications and souvenirs and then down a hall full of Greek and Roman antiquities. It’s possible to pass that way without paying attention to these collections, perhaps without even being conscious of them, but I doubt that anyone can fail to be affected in some way.
Should a Reader choose to be more attentive to the Museum, its force is all the greater. A few minutes with the Elgin Marbles or the Rosetta stone or the Grecian urns that caught Keats’ eye are marvelously quickening.
One cannot get into the library when the Museum is open without passing through throngs of visitors, including large numbers of rosy-cheeked British school children in school uniforms; families just off the plane from Indiana and bearing up as well as they can under the stress of the twelve-year-old complaining, “I’m bored”; large, unwieldy groups of non-English speakers straining under the burden of video cameras and jostling people out of the way in order to stay near their interpreter. It is gratifying and entertaining to be a member of an institution that is so valued by so many people.
Part of my enjoyment of the crowds is the sense that I have special status in this wondrous place. They are tourists; I am a Reader. I have a Reader’s Pass that allows me to enter the building even when it is closed to Museum visitors. The first time I discovered that the Reader’s Pass was so powerful, I went in and out several times just to experience the thrill of walking across the forecourt in solitary importance toward the main entrance in the shelter of the great columns.
I hold up my card, and a guard says, “Pass in, Sir.” I do, and greet the evening cleaning crew in sweet condescension as I process in majesty through the quiet, empty Museum towards the Main Reading Room at its center.
However much I and other Readers may value the Reading Room and its location in the heart of the British Museum, it has been decided that the Library will be moved to a “purpose-built” structure about a mile away. (What’s next? A new and improved Westminster Abbey?)
The move has met great opposition for various reasons in the twenty or so years since the idea was first introduced. Many of those opposed prefer the current Reading Room to any place that can be imagined. Some just prefer the current situation to the particular building that will replace it. Prince Charles has said that the new library looks like a railway station, while the St. Pancras railway station across the street from it (built in the latter part of the nineteenth century in gothic-revival style) looks like a library.
Others object to the cost. The first segment of construction was to have cost £250,000,000 [around $375 million at the time;] the figure is now up to £450,000,000 and likely to rise. [The final cost in today’s dollars was $1.2 billion.] At the outset of the project, the new building was supposed to be large enough to house all of the library’s holdings through the year 2030; 1996 is the date currently being given. The new building was to provide a large increase in the number of reader’s desks; it will not.
When the planners of the new building say that there is a need for a new “purpose-built” facility, the discussion often moves to preservation technology and systems for preventing damage to books, damage currently caused by having to transport books from the many outhouses to the Reading Room. Critics argue that these reasonable goals can be met in ways other than the wholesale move to a new facility.
I suspect that more lies in the phrase “purpose-built” than new technology and the physical handling of books. I fear that the people behind the move have a secret agenda that is essentially revolutionary. The literature that describes the move and attempts to persuade readers of its wisdom puts forth an idea of a library that is contrary to the concept of “library” upon which the British Library was originally built and has flourished.
Originally, the library set about to preserve reading materials and to make them available for use by “all studious and curious Persons.” The new facility at St. Pancras will feature prominently a “Piazza for everyone—a place of relaxation and street theatre, popular entertainment and small scale performance.” “Everyone” is quite a different clientele from “all studious and curious Persons.”
And while a piazza is an acceptable focal point for a Roman holiday, it is inappropriate as the architectural center of “the world’s greatest research library.” It lacks the sense of majesty and power and awe that the building should proclaim. It seems that the architects and those who chose the design lack sufficient love of books and learning.
It is also difficult, perhaps impossible (especially given the enormous cost of this undertaking) to make a case for “relaxation, and street theatre, popular entertainment and small scale performance.” It would be less expensive–and it would honor historic precedents–to stay clearly focussed on preserving and making available for public use books, maps, manuscripts, and recordings, leaving show biz to other institutions.
It’s significant that the library’s principal effort to persuade a resistant public of the wisdom of this extraordinarily expensive conceptual change is presented most prominently not in writing, but in a videotape.
There will be reading rooms in the new facility, of course, but the experience won’t be the same; it will not be as satisfying as holing up for hours of quiet contemplation deep inside the core of the British Museum. In the first place, St. Pancras will have several reading rooms. Actually there are several in the current British Library, but to virtually everyone, “The Reading Room” means that remarkable space under the great dome in the middle of the Museum, a space that is appropriately intimidating and awesome.
Permission to use the Reading Room is signified by a Reader’s Pass–not a library card, not an ID. Readers read at Reader’s Desks and the badge of admission is named accordingly. In the various pamphlets and publications currently in use, readers are not referred to as researchers or users or as anything except “readers”. The patrons of the Piazza at St. Pancras should be called auditors, viewers, or relaxers, but I doubt they will be.
Even the more than twenty current rules for use of the library will seem to a certain extent inappropriate in the new building. Rule 8, for example, prohibits the chewing of gum in the library. It seems a perfectly reasonable rule in the current Reading Room. In the street theater ambience of St. Pancras, it won’t. My favorite, Rule 9, will almost certainly be archaic at the new Chinese red and dark green building that looks like a railway station. “Readers must conduct themselves in an orderly manner at all times while on the library premises, and must not behave in any way likely to disturb other readers. Silence must be strictly observed by readers while at desks…” It’s hard to imagine strict observation of silence in a piazza hosting street theatre and popular entertainment.
When the move to the new building finally comes, I hope some malcontent will organize a proper ceremony in which we happy and proud Readers in the Reading Room can, in the company of the honored spirits of those who went before us, properly mourn the passing of this dear friend. The world was richer for its presence; it will be poorer for its passing.
The Reading Room in the British Museum is now closed. I’ve not been to the new facility at St. Pancras. I may not go.