Saturday, 16 July 2011

Lost in the library

I adore libraries, I really do.  The British Library (oh ok, its Peyton & Byrne Cafe in particular) is what is making my dissertation anywhere remotely bearable.  But many of the university libraries I have encountered down in London have been downright awful.  When I did my first degree up in Durham I spent hours in a concrete termite mound of a library, grim from the outside but one could always find something useful inside.  Everything from the computer rooms to the African Socialism section was where it said it was on the handy maps.  It was designed for students and run for them, with a hopeful sense that it was all worth doing if at least one of them does something amazing in the future.  
London university libraries however are designed as if to test whether you really want, or intellectually merit, your degree at all.  Higher education facilities are apparently one of the city's biggest expenditures - so why are their libraries so poor?  (And I mean in a non-financial sense here.)  I remember fondly the helpful people who staffed Durham's libraries, many of them bright postgrad students themselves.  The staff I have met down here are the complete opposite.  They are unhelpful, lazy, and far more interested in their own conversations than the stressed cries for help of a struggling part-time postgrad, enquiring why they can't find a particular book where THE BLOODY CATALOGUE SAYS IT SHOULD BE.  At the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and I kid you not, I have queued for a total time approaching two hours simply to get an external reader card to access their books.  The queue of fed-up sighs moved painfully slowly as the three, yes three, librarians processed each request as a team effort, as if competing in some sort of reader-registering relay.

I could, of course, just sit tight in the small, cosy library at my own college, Birkbeck, but we have been urged, nay, instructed, that to do full justice to a post-graduate dissertation we must find resources beyond our own college's walls.  So from time to time I brave SOAS, which has just completed a complex rennovation, complete with an odd interior decor scheme that looks like the building work has only just begun in some places.  It is full of students that make me feel very old (I, at the grand old age of 26) as they slouch around clutching pristine books on Asian art, with huge hair and lots of eye-makeup, comparing hangovers.  I left university to get away from these people, I have no desire to spend my evenings and weekends with them.  Where are all the grown-up students?  Senate House, the main library for the University of London is located a stone's throw away, so I thought I'd give that a try.  

What an error that decision was.  Imposing from the outside (legend has it that Hitler was a huge admirer of the place) inside the art deco building looks, at first glance, equally striking.  Lots of brass and parquet flooring and luxuriant carpet stretch up to the grand Chancellors Hall.  But it seems that those glossier areas are just for show.  I had done a little online research to save myself time on arrival so I knew which books I needed and where they should be.  But could I find even a sign to the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (or ICOMMS) library where they supposedly resided?  Could I hell.  When I enquired at a reception desk I was told, laughingly, I was in completely the wrong place.  I was directed away by a lady with an almost unintelligible accent, and soon found myself woefully lost heading for Russell Square.  After being collared to sign some petition on cleaning staff average pay (pay them the minimum London wage, you administrative scumbags!), and being sent up in a lift then along a squiggly corridor by the second person I asked for directions, I found myself back at the start.
I tried again.  The third directee totally failed to judge my pissed off mood and made some joke about catching a bus to another city for several minutes, which he thought was hilarious and I imagined being heard again in court as I stood trial for braining him with the brass (and oh so unhelpful) "you are here" sign beside the desk.  He escorted me back down a hall, and pointed me to a tiny lift.  Inside the brass plaque showed several options of floor choices: G, 2, 3, 4, Slavic Studies.  Emerging on the 2nd floor (despite the options the lift was basically a shuttle between here and the ground floor), I almost lost it at the fourth person who informed me I was in the wrong place.  His directions (back down in the rickety lift again) at last directed me to the Small Hall, which ICOMMS library was.

And my, but it was, er, Small - so Small I could cross it in two seconds and see this was evidently not where I should be.  Two lugubrious souls were turning vast pages of paleography tomes, overseen by a silent librarian with drawn-on eyebrows.  I quickly scuttled through the room, emerging into a deserted corridor, along which doors stood open at odd intervals.  Codes and topics on a printed sheet of A4 blue-tac-ed to each gave an approximate description of the contents.  It was the bleakest place in which I have ever seen books.  Books usually brighten up a place, but was were they put the books no one cared about.  After two hours down there I had not seen, or heard, another soul.
And this is what it looks like.  (Oddly my camera has also managed to make the place look a lot brighter than it is in real life - don't let it fool you.)  It is a book-lined dungeon.  And it really is that narrow.  The window at the end, looks UP at the ground above.  Everything is made of heavy clunking metal - shelves, doors, chairs.  Now when one is writing a dissertation on the subject of civil war and thinking about the most vile things a human is capable of doing to another, this is not the sort of environment guaranteed to lighten the mood.  Yet here is where they keep the books on this topic that I need to read, banished as if their subject matter is too depressing to be stored in more pleasurable surrounds.  And so here it seems is where you will find me this summer, down in the depths of gloom and doom.  If I'm not there, I have probably fled to the delightful un-university-affiliated British Library, where they have sunlight and comfy chairs.  And, most importantly, decent cake.  Remind me what I'm paying all these expensive university tuition fees for?


  1. I have a friend who studies at SOAS and he says that the teaching staff can be the same as the librarians :/. I can't work in the library at my university - people think it's ok to talk in quiet places, or steal much needed computers for facebook time, or try to out douche each other whilst talking about research topics and generally make my life miserable. I work much better taking the books away from the library and holing myself up in my bedroom :).

  2. Now I'm glad I don't actually study there, NeonRaine! (I feel fortunate my lecturers at Birkbeck have been more engaged with us all.) I think everyone just has to find somewhere to study that works for them - be it the university library, at home, in a busy cafe or just anywhere with a space big enough to read and write. Best of luck with your work from one who feels your pain!

  3. Here is a suggestion: study by correspondence in La Sorbonne. The facilities won't be any better, but it will only cost you 300 Euros a year...
    Have you finished your dissertation?

  4. Ah but a correspondence course at the Sorbonne would rob me of the chance to live in Paris, Muriel. (Maybe for the next one...NO! No more studying!)

    Dissertation is still a work in progress - two months until submission. Am counting down the days...

  5. I completely feel your pain! in the States I felt like our uni libraries were miles beyond the state funded libraries. Then I studied in London and it was SHOCKING! Books that were listed as core requirements weren't even on offer, old editions of books that had been updated within the past 5 years. I did my MA in CONTEMPORARY political theory...a bit hard when all the books in the library were pre 9/11 books! And don't get me started on the staff! /rant

  6. I've certainly had a similar experience to you, Ariel - "core text" seems to indicate a single copy that the entire class of 50+ students will have to fight over. Insane!

  7. I'm sorry that you were given the runaround by the building's reception staff. No excuse for that, except to say they were not Library staff and I understand the contractor used by the university had a number of staffing changes over the summer. Am as disappointed as you were that you were misdirected not only once, but twice before finding us.
    The Institute of Commonwealth Studies Library was still in a temporary space when you visited, while refurboshment of the Library was being carried out. The temporary space, originally offices and seminar rooms, was not ideal for many reasons, a number of which you highlight. However some users liked the quiet spaces provided at this time.
    We did, in August move the collections to the 6th floor of the Library, newly painted and carpetted, with new furniture, and a much lighter, brighter and more pleasant environment.
    I hope that you found the material you were looking for in our collections and that this aided you in completing your dissertation.
    If you are or intend to continue your studies I hope you pop up and see the new space.

  8. Hi David, thanks for your comment. I do realise I probably caught the library on a bad day! I am now all finished with my Masters so it's unlikely I'll be spending much time in Senate House in the future. I did get to see some of the refurbishments before I finished however and the new spaces do look excellent. I hope all your current and future students enjoy using them!


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