A library doesn’t need to do a lot to get me on-side. I love libraries. The waft of literature on a summer evening through Radcliffe Square (seriously – walk past there after dark in Trinity. You can smell the books) is the nearest thing to a numinous experience. I like freizes, I like mosaics, I like big leather-bound rows of crackling volumes and imagining who might ever want to look in them. I love beautiful beautiful compendia like this – I actually keep the Librophiliac Love Letter on my bookmarks bar. One of my favourite parts of my own college is the Senior Library, designed by James Wyatt, with its imposing mezzanine and cool, cool pillars, apparently bearing the promise that here, in the long gallery, with the silent green baize and small brown desks, you will finally find a way out of procrastination. Here, they say, you will find your work ethic. I love Duke Humfrey’s (and not just so, like Harriet, I can pretend to ‘collect material, in a lesiurely way’ while secretly sleuthing after dark. I wish I was secretly sleuthing after dark). I love the Upper Res, despite its horribly mismatched, scoliosis-inducing furniture, and I have a weird sort of affection for the banality of the EFL (especially now the nice ladies have accepted my cheque apology and reinstated my borrowing rights). The stage was set for an almighty London love affair.
And it all started so well. Andrew was right – the British Library is the future. It’s enormous, airy, timeless in structure and impressive in both design and scope. There are people (hot people, cool people, diverse in age and race and gender people) everywhere, talking in all sorts of languages, sitting on everything, using wireless (a library where they actually accept that yes, you do want all the wireless, ALL OF THE TIME), eating food. EATING FOOD. There’s a cafe, guys. You can eat and read books in the same building. It feels alive. It’s really well-lit. The geography makes sense, there was a cute exhibition on Darwin, the shop is to bloody well die for, there was piped birdsong, weird little hidden exhibitions of stamps and propaganda, and a side-room where I got to listen to recordings of blissful Ellen Terry and Forbes Robertson. And Prince Philip sounding oddly hot in the early 1960s.
Even Reader Registration was relatively painless – the waiting area only slightly resembled Immigration and/or a GP’s room during a pandemic, and the cloakroom attendant was pleasantry to my cluelessness, and the Manuscript Reading Room was willing to acknowledge my existence.
I don’t know if it’s something in my face that just makes library staff hate me. I don’t know. Several of my friends are, or have been, librarians, and they are able to hold conversations with me without reaching for knives, so either I’m unfortunate or my friends just built up a resistance. But – and with all due respect, and in the firm knowledge that I may never, ever, ever make a successful Stack Request again – it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that if you want somebody to be rude to you, go to a library.
The British Library’s issuing, requesting, and bloody well reading procedures are labyrinthine, illogical and baffling to the initiating. That’s FINE. I am okay with that. The Bodleian uses a system built on trust, tiny yellow papers and insanity, split over nine thousand different sites and yet not allowing you to stack request to the English Faculty. The SSL, forty seconds away? Oh yes. Oh yes oh yes. The EFL, no. And yet I cheerfully wear my striped scarf, sign off my College Fee and say floreat oxon, and with it that spectacularly unattractive bunker designed to resemble a temple. I cheerfully accept that every encounter I ever make with a major UK institution’s books with involve a prolonged induction of chaos and confusion. I won’t know where anything is. I won’t know how to find snake weights, or foam wedges, or even the bit of my desk with a plug on it. I won’t know that I’m not allowed to have more than one MS out at a time, OR how to tell that a MS isn’t restricted and can be got within the hour, simply by looking at its number. I will be childishly thrilled to carry books between levels in the Shakespeare Institute (guys! You don’t even have to fill in a slip!), marvel, wide-eyed at speedy arrivals from MS Add. and I won’t have a clue (until sternly told otherwise) that pens are forbidden – on pain of death – in the second floor BL Manuscripts Room. I will get lost looking for the New Bod’s Special Collections room. I will spend four years at Oxford and never make it to the Radcliffe Science Library. I will walk right past the dictionary I want in the Rothermere Institute, and submit to the fact that the EFL’s cataloguing system ends with 1880- . I am perfectly happy to spend much of my research time in a state of locative confusion. It’s great. I don’t like white water rapids and I’ve never wanted to go back-packing. This is my idea of fun.
In other words: I don’t mind being ignorant, I don’t mind having room to learn. What I do mind, however, is that when I am forced to ask a question – when do you close, how do I get a slippy thing, does the library just KNOW my seat number because I can’t see anywhere to tell you and does that ‘INITIALS’ bit on the side mean yours or mine, and where are the sodding snake weights – regardless of institution, county, or, I suspect, continent, the library professional opposite me will feel it necessary to preface his or her reply with a long, contemptuous exhale through the nose. Again, I don’t know if it’s just that they hate me. Probably if you’re asked forty times a day where the snake weights are, it gets annoying but hey I have worked in customer service and one of customer service’s functions is to cheerfully put the F into the FAQ. And perhaps, just perhaps, if a librarian sees me (Reader, I am not stout. I am not hale. I do not have the length of arm or leg) struggling with a MS box the size and weight of a young oak, or with enormous foam rests the same size as the lilos kids play on at swim parties), it might be nice to unpurse your lips, return your jaw to its original setting, and give me a sodding hand. This is even before we tell the story of how a certain Oxford library that shall remain nameless once sent eight of my stack requests back to Cheshire (why does the Bodleian store its books in Cheshire? CHESHIRE?) when I had specifically told them not to.
I have, of course, met lovely librarians; Marjory, saintly college librarian who not only buys one stuff, has a sense of humour when one has a tantrum and accidentally loses jewellery down her library shelves, but is just generally fab; that poor maligned boy in the Bod who seems to exist only for his horrid colleagues to bully, and everybody ever at the Shakespeare Institute, all of who are charming and kind. On the other hand, going back to my old school last weekend I discovered there’s now an ‘ADULT FICTION’ section of books that only sixth formers are allowed to read, so perhaps the disease is spreading – stupidly and arbitrarily selected ‘ADULT FICTION’, I must say. Dan Brown isn’t suitable, but Virginia Andrews (incest, Southern Gothic, o happy Year 8 English) is? Sebastian Faulks must be kept off-limits until the reader hits sixteen? ‘Point Romance’ and all manner of slushy crap with ‘Boyd’ and ‘Tina’ on the spine is appropriate for intelligent, adolescent girls, but ‘The Master and Margarita’, Nabakov and everything I read in Year 10 will be fatal to their moral fibre? I think The Horse Whisperer is even still on the main shelves, a book I – and doubtless every other girl who was in 7x c. 1998 – remembers as the book that taught us the meaning of the word ‘engorged’. Also, I seem to remember that the libretto to Sondehim’s Sweeney Todd is still in the main Drama & Poetry section, i.e. the musical where the Judge gives himself an orgasm through self-flagellation. Splendid. I hate the idea of ADULT FICTION anyway – surely the point of school libraries is that it gives you a self-defined reading life, untrammelled by considerations of yr pocket money or yr curriculum or yr parents (fortunately my parents, esp my mother, conspired in my desire to read everything to the extent that when she actually did forbid me to read one book, it took me years to disobey her). I mean possibly titles on how to knit-your-own-Columbine should be avoided, but otherwise, let the poor things get on with it. And stop hiding the snake weights.
P.S. With all my complaints about the BL, I am excited to be going back next week, and entirely agree with the sentiments here – sod the Olympics, let’s buy more books.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.