Thursday, 3 March 2011

All the books in Britain

When I am writing an essay for my university course I will do anything not to sit down and actually do it.  The television I rarely watch, my iTunes music collection, the washing-up, and even the laundry all seem more tempting than the reading and analysis which proceed the writing of several thousand words on development and gendered ageing experiences.  I usually have to remove myself from my flat to work, to save myself cleaning the bathroom or baking a pie in order to do anything but get my essay written.  Typically I seek peace in coffee shops, finding my university library too terrifying a place to work; it is usually wall-to-wall panicking students which does little to reassure me that I needn't be panicking too.

The other day however I made for the library to end all libraries in London - the wonderful British Library.  The British Library has stood in its current position amid the train stations of Euston Road since 1997, when a striking new building complete with a sculpture-strewn piazza opened to house a significant chunk of the nation's collection of printed matter.  Within this red brick edifice, which has oddly oriental elements to it with its sloping, tiered rooves, are housed literary treasures such as a handwritten manuscript of Jane Austen, Captain Cook's journal and ancient copies of religious texts.  Many of these items appear in permanent exhibitions, whilst temporary displays appear to detail topics such as the changing nature of slang and the hidden propaganda of maps.  Stretching up throughout the centre of the structure, spanning the floors, is a glass-housed collection, once belonging to George III.  Occasionally you can see a shelf slide back and a librarian claim a tome before replacing the shelf and vanishing. Yet there are millions more books, papers, even every back issue of British Vogue, hidden away underground beneath this building and miles away in repositories in Woolwich.  And these are the books that many hundreds and thousands of readers, writers and researchers come here to see.  
Ever second person, i.e. those here to use the library for its original purpose rather than there merely as a tourist, clutches a clear plastic bag containing pens and notebooks and usually a laptop.  Each looks oddly like they've just been through airport customs and been frisked of all their personal effects.  They camp themselves on benches, at odd, tiny triangular-shaped tables on high chairs (along a wall in the excellent Peyton & Byrne cafe), and spread out along balconies and every square inch of space.  Yet the building is so well designed that even when fully occupied the space never feels over-crowded or untidy.  (Tucked away, several floors up on the back of the building, is even a secret garden.  Visit it in the summertime and you can take a break from your hard work and look out over the busy city surrounded by a wall of unexpected roses.)  At the British Library there is enough going on to make for absorbing people-watching, yet not too much to make it impossible to be equally absorbed by one's books.
I force my focus back to my work and type away and consult my notes and piles of photocopied articles.  Surrounded by all the ancient words of notable authors whose works have illustrated history I hope desperately that some of their creative and literary genius will rub off on me.  I visualise words and phrases creeping out of the yellowing pages and floating silently and invisibly in through my ear and out once again through my fingers tapping on the keyboard, populating the blank document on my laptop screen; a process of creative osmosis, if you will.  And so fuelled by a lot of coffee and in the company of the world's greatest novelists, philosophers, poets and explorers I finally finish my essay.


  1. Good luck with your essay, Accidental Londoner! I haven't been to the British Library for ages and your post made me want to go back. I can even smell the coffee...

  2. Still nervously awaiting the results of the essay but about to get cracking on the next one...back to the library I go...


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