05 May 2008

Whispers Beneath the Stately Dome

Last month the Times of London ran back-to-back stories on how crowded the British Library has become. Or rather, how college students (and people who could be mistaken for college students) were using it in such numbers that older researchers, some of them professional, must arrive early in the morning and wait in line along with everyone else in order to get a seat. This was, apparently, a Bad Thing.

The New York Times tracked down one of the talking heads who spoke to the London Times and let him fulminate some more:

“The worst is that they actually answer their phones,” [Tristram Hunt] said. “The phone vibrates and they go, ‘Hold on a minute, Nigel,’ and then they run out of the reading room and take the call.”
This is the worst behavior Mr. Hunt can tally--setting the mobile on vibrate and leaving the room to take the call? I've seen more flouting of cell-phone rules in my local library. And there's not always a good seat there.

From Madison, Wisconsin, Susan David Bernstein wrote in to cisatlantic Times with this needed perspective:
The recent account of the culture of the new British Library Reading Rooms bears a remarkable resemblance to the celebrated ambiance of the old British Museum Reading Room.

One reporter described female readers much like the complaints your article conveys: “woman talks and whispers beneath the stately dome, nay that she flirts, and eats strawberries behind the folios, in the society of some happy student of the opposite sex.”

Two years later a similar article on the Reading Room grumbles about the open access issue where “some people who are neither scholars nor students find their way into the reading-room,” and goes on to describe such visitors as “necessary evils ... to be endured” and as “dead flies which spoil the ointment.”

These two articles appeared in 1886 and 1888, respectively.
For my part, I enjoyed doing research at the British Library but found its procedures and traditions opaque. I was continually worrying about what unspoken rule I would break next. But lunch in the café was nice.

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