I’ve been working at the British Library.  I didn’t intend to come to London in order to work there – as in, I wasn’t aware of any special thing that they had that I had to come here to read.  It turns out they do have a number of primary sources that are useful to me that are not available in the states, however, mostly because they are able to get material from any library in London (and further?).

They have an interesting system here.  First, you have to apply for a reader pass, which involves proving your identity and address and giving them a list of things you are interested in reading.  The pass is for three years, and you don’t have to ever request the things you write down at that time, but I suppose they just want to make sure you are for real.  Anyone can go into the library, but you need to show your pass to get into the reader rooms, and there are like seven, for different subjects, on various floors of the library.

You can’t bring any food or drink or pens into the reading rooms, and have to put everything you are taking into the room in a clear plastic bag that they provide.  There are checkers at the door.  Because of this there is a room where they have lockers for a 1-pound deposit (that you get back).  So you go in with your clear plastic bag and computer and you take a seat.  The seats are in rows of 10, five on each side, and are big though not separated from the ones to the sides, which I like.  Then you request books online, and enter in your seat number.  There is a light at every seat that is supposed to go off when your books are ‘ready,’ but I don’t think those work anymore, so you just go after an hour to the central desk and they give you your books.  You can only request 7 or so books per day, and you have to return them at the end of the day.  You can keep up to six of them on reserve however.  You can’t check anything out.

Though I like checking things out, and working at cafes or at home, all of this has the effect of creating a very studious and serious atmosphere.  The rooms themselves are large and bright (the main humanities room extends up three floors, with other ‘mezzanine’ style reading rooms partially obscuring the sunlight that is coming in from the windows in the  ceiling).  There are solemn, leather bounded reference books on all the walls of the room, adding to the effect.  There are people of all ages there, including people who are still in ‘uni’ (college), but the atmosphere and hoops you have to jump through are not conducive to going there just to hang out and sort of study, or maybe that’s what they’re doing but it’s less noticeable in any case.  Anyway, most people at least seem to be quite engaged/absorbed in their work, and everyone has lots of books and notes on their desk, and of course it’s very quiet.  Only the sounds of typing, and pencil writing, are audible.  When you leave you have to open your laptop and show it to the bouncers, to prove that you haven’t slipped a book into your computer, I suppose.

Oh and you can leave all your stuff at your seat!  Your seat is your seat for the day, so you just leave all your books there.  People even leave their computers there!  All the seats are very much out in the open, so it’s not like carrels where you don’t really see the other people around you.  I suppose this is why people feel safe (though some people do bring those security cables)?  Or maybe they just screen out the hooligans.  Kidding.  Anyway I usually take my computer when I go for lunch, but leave it when I just go out for a coffee.  There is a restaurant and cafe area in the library, which is where people socialize, and another cafe outside of the library (and a pret a manger across the street, which I feel guilty for liking).  So it creates a nice environment, with people working inside the reader rooms, taking breaks outside.  Also the room with the lockers is, not exactly social, but a place where all the workers gather together at the beginning and end of the day (variously defined).  It’s where I hear the most accents, American accent included.  It’s not really a community of scholars but more an illusion of a community of scholars in a sort-of public setting.  But illusions make me more scholarly.

Though I am mostly hard at work, of course, one can’t help but notice the people around you a bit.  It is very interesting to watch people as they work.  Yesterday the woman diagonally to my left was writing, and had very furrowed, quasi-frustrated expression on her face.  She was sounding the sentences out and moving her hands in sort of a circle to help herself think.  It was all very familiar.  Actually I wanted to talk to her because I saw she was reading a book called Saving London and another called Heritage Obsession, but, you know, library.  The woman diagonally to my right had something else going on.  When I first sat down I thought maybe she had just heard some really bad news.  But I think she was just sick, but also distracted, either by work or by something else.  She looked up a lot to think (which I do too), and stared very intensely at people or at the air, and had a very fraught and vexed look on her face.  I was afraid to catch her stare; it was just too much.  I wonder if something was going on or if work was just making her a little crazy, which happens too.

That I find this system nice is peculiar to me because it’s similar to what they did in Italy, but the Italian libraries drove me insane.  But there are some noticeable differences.  First of all, in Bologna at least, there is not a central library.  Each department has its own library.  In 2003 there was no computerized system – they still used a card system (in fact they probably had computers in the renaissance but have since degenerated into card chaos).  Some of the books were just on the shelves to get, but for the rest you had to get a slip of paper, write down the book number, and take it to the desk for them to get it.  The people at the desk don’t work from 2-5pm, of course, and not at all on Thursday afternoons.  They just sit there.  The photocopy room is outside the library.  You can’t check books out, but you can request them inside the library, take them next door to photocopy, and then bring them back.  The photocopy machine requires a card that you put money on.  The woman selling the cards doesn’t work after 2pm on any day.  I entered a library (for the literature department) early on in my time there, when I didn’t really know Italian and had no experience with this sort of system.  It was a very frustrating afternoon.  I managed to get a photocopy card seconds before the woman left, and get the books that I needed even though it was a bit after 2pm.  The fact that one of the books was coincidentally literally inches away from the arm of the person at the desk helped my case, and the person there nicely handed it to me despite the fact that he was on his break.

Anyway, back to the British library. This piece is on the lower level.  It’s, as my mom would say, neat.  It’s by Patrick Hughes and it’s called Paradoxy Moron.



3 Responses to study

  1. vicki says:


  2. lesbonsbonsdesraisons says:

    Two things: Pret a manger is so great! I was weirdly jealous of the food situation in London, largely because of the prospect of an affordable lunch from Pret, Eat, or M&S. Two, “they still used a card system (in fact they probably had computers in the renaissance but have since degenerated into card chaos)” – hearts. Hope you are having fun!

  3. aem321 says:

    I am having fun! And my neighbor works at an Eat store and gives me free food sometimes. Though I haven’t been eating out much, actually, because actual restaurants are expensive and I worry about making the right choice.

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