Tuesday, 19 February 2008


It's 9.40am and I am sitting in a kind of red metal and glass hut on the piazza of the British Library, sheltering from the grey cold and bracing myself to enter the library itself. The hut is called The Last Word and is a café that dispenses myriad hot drinks, cold drinks and pastries to people like me, only the other customers look markedly less excited than I feel. They look positively blasé in fact, as if they neither know nor care that they are imbibing lattes and hot chocolates on the grounds of the very institution that provided Karl Marx with the material for Das Kapital. Charles Dickens, I'm sure, researched here, and thousands of others, famous, infamous and known only to their mothers, have been inspired here. As I chew sticky white icing off the tips of my forefinger and thumb I marvel at the nonchalance of my fellow patrons: have they practised in the mirror before coming out? Or are they just people who come here everyday to work, writers and researchers, who have simply got used to the place? Am I the only one here who is finally realising a long held dream? Just a short step away the repository of the nations knowledge lies. Everything that has ever been published in Britain, and much besides, is held here. The ghosts of our collective intellect reside here and once I've finished my frothy coffee and disappointing Danish I'm off to introduce myself to a few.

11Am: I am now a registered reading room user with a credit-card style pass complete with photograph. I have a 'how to' leaflet to read before I can use the reading rooms so have come to the (internal) café for a cup of tea. The place is humming with literary voices. I read the rules and find before I enter the reading rooms I must first dump my bag (too big), pens (dangerous to the collection), my half eaten minty Aero (ditto) and my coat (reason unspecified). I can take a notebook and pencils with me, a laptop if I had one, my phone if it's silenced, and in the locker room will find a clear plastic bag in which to carry them.
I also learn from the leaflet that the walls of the reading rooms will not be lined with great tomes as I had hitherto imagined because the books are all kept in the basement (some even off-site) and have to be ordered via computer. The British Library, it seems, is a kind of bibliographic Argos. This means I'll have to know what I'm looking for which I don't, I was hoping to browse: to feel and sniff and discover. Instead I will have to trawl through lists on a database and whatever I choose to look at could take up to forty eight hours to arrive, I only have five left! Better go and find those lockers.

4PM: I am back in The Last Word with a cup of tea. My first day as a British Library user is over. I now know the whereabouts of all the loos, the cloakroom, the locker room, have become quite familiar with Humanities 1, and even have my favourite route from there to the other facilities: a back staircase out of the way of the general public. I have searched the catalogue but have not held a single book in my hands. It took me so long to work out how to use the 'Argos' system that by the time I'd found something I thought I'd like to see I didn't have the seventy minutes left it would take to get it. So I wandered off to the exhibition rooms and saw Breaking The Rules, an exhibition of literary Avant Garde art, in my last hour, clutching my 'reader's room user' clear plastic bag like a badge of honour.


Mary Witzl said...

Those people sitting around with their dull, bored looks obviously don't live in Moffat where the teeny, tiny library is only open on certain days and for a limited number of hours. Or for that matter where they can sooner find half a dozen of the latest bodice-rippers than a far racier, meatier, classic, much less a decent book of poetry. Put them in Moffat for a couple of years and I'm betting they'd be roaming around the British Library with a real hunger and delight.

Have fun with the British Library, Eryl. And bring some back for me!

Carole said...

I am with the bored looking customers. If I have to go to a library to not see books, not touch books, and not have time to order books, it seems as if the glory of the expedition would fade.

A library that needs instructions to use seems absolutely wrong.

Eryl Shields said...

Mary ~ I was there for only one day and it was actually last Friday. You can't take books away from the BL you have to sit and read them there, it's purely for research. Now I know what to do I'll pre-order the books I want online before I go. They have every book ever published in the U.K. and many more. Just knowing I was in the same building as all those books made me feel dizzy.

Carole ~ Yes it does seem odd doesn't it. In actual fact there were books on display (in glass cases) and there were a few on shelves that I could have picked up and looked at, I was just miffed that they weren't all out there for anyone to pick up. They do have over 150 million items though so I guess displaying them all would be difficult.

Now I'm a member I can search the catalogue at home and order books for my arrival.

Is there an American national library? I can't imagine how many books it would have if there is, billions!

PI said...

I had to giggle at your regular stokings (tea,Danish etc)but you didn't mention lunch? I'm sure it was a very useful recce and next time you will waltz around like a regular Virginia.

Kim Ayres said...

half eaten minty Aero

that's one of those phrases that reminds me how we are at different ends of the eating spectrum. I cannot possibly imagine having a half eaten chocolate anything, unless you caught me in the middle of the few seconds it took to open and devour.

Chocolate aside, you've created a great feeling of the excitement and disappointment in one :)

Sam, Problemchildbride said...

Bah, that's a bit disappointing. I'd love to go but I know now that when I do I'll need to do some prep work beforehand. Thanks for letting us know that.

Eryl Shields said...

Pat ~ I didn't write anything during lunch, I was too busy looking out for Martin Amis! But I had disgusting soup (supposedly roast tomato and basil) and a rather odd sponge pudding with poppy seeds, pears and custard - delish.

Kim ~ I used to be a devourer but with much mental striving have taught myself that I only need a little at a time. I can make a minty aero last a whole week these days. I haven't yet managed to do that with wine though, if I open a bottle I drink the lot.

Sam ~ You're welcome. I wish someone had told me the form before I went, but then I didn't tell anyone I was going!

debra said...

We have the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. I was there once when I was rather young. There is, as you say, something very cool about being in a place that houses everything printed in that country. (or a listing of everything printed :-)

Eryl Shields said...

Now I would love, one day, to visit that library. Actually I think I'd rather like to visit every country's national library. I wonder if anyone has written a book about visiting national libraries, that would be an interesting book.

debra said...

You have piqued my interest. Here's the link for the US Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/index.html
It's an interesting site.

Conan Drumm said...

The National Library here has very similar form, but is probably smaller. I wonder are they collecting/archiving blogs yet? They're the nearest thing in the present day to the diaries and political/satire pamphlets of the 17th-19th centuries.

Eryl Shields said...

Debra ~ thanks, I'll check it out.

CD ~ I have a vague recollection of hearing something on radio 4 about some institution collecting blogs, it might have been the Bodelian in Oxford. It hadn't struck me before but you are right, blogging is a kind of electronic pamphleteering.