Thursday, July 03, 2008

From the new BL.

If you are feeling ornery, you might try to point out to me that the British Library at St. Pancras is not that new, but to me it is, and it is my blog, dammit.

About 12 years, I spent a good bit of time working in the old British Library, located under the great dome of the British Museum. It was, after all, once called the British Museum Library, and as an institution it did not separate until 1972. Physically, the two institutions separated in 1997, when the new facility at St. Pancras opened to cheers and boos. This library is the legal deposit library for the United Kingdom , which means that a copy of every single book published in the UK and Ireland (and foreign books distributed in Britain) must be sent here. Talk about shelf space!

To get to the old British Library, you had to pass through the main doors and entryway of the British Museum. That meant climbing the impressive stone steps and making your way through hordes of visiting schoolchildren on your way to show your pass, squeeze your bag into the cloakroom, and search out a good desk, perhaps even with an outlet for your laptop.

Working under that dome was amazing: there you would be, having your serious thoughts and reading serious books in the same room where so many others had before you--Karl Marx, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, and on and on. Looking back on the I spent there, when I was researching for my dissertation, I do not believe I did that much work that I could not have done elsewhere, but to do it there was an experience I would not trade.

Particularly now that it is an experience never to be replicated.

Now they have converted that old space into a sort of replica of the original. The domed library is still there, with books lining it (and the same fake books disguising the doors). The architectural space around the dome, which used to serve as extremely cramped bookstacks (though it was not originally intended to do so--but the library, like so many, ran out of storage space), is now opened up to the light, and it holds a cafe. In the library itself, there are still the rays of numbered desks emanating from the central hub, and there are some books there (mostly samples of writings by important figures who used the library over the years), but it is no longer a true working space. It has become a museum of a museum.

UPDATE: It is worse than I thought.

At the time I was working there (1996 or 1997), the BL was in the process of moving itself to St. Pancras, which meant that the time between calling up a book and having it delivered was even longer than usual--and "usual" was already pretty long. An inevitable part of the BL experience, then, was waiting, and finding ways to use waiting time productively.

The new BL is, relatively speaking anyway, all about efficiency. Catalogues are now online. Materials can be reserved in advance, again online. There are outlets at every desk. There are ample lockers for securing your stuff. Book call time has dropped significantly. There is air conditioning. There is a restaurant in the building. There are limits on the number of little slips you can have at any time, so that you only submit the permitted number at one time. Everything feels spacious and light.

This time I am really using things that I can only use here--the Macmillan Publishing Company's archives, which I am consulting for another volume of my edition.

Some things have not changed. You still have to have a reader's pass to use the reading rooms, and getting such a pass requires "real reason" to use the collection and letters of reference. Getting access to manuscripts takes more letters and proof. There are still the earnest graduate students, and I can so clearly remember what it was like to see something rare or unique for the first time, something you can only see in this one place. I think I see that look on the faces of students around me, as they turn the leaves of an old manuscript.

And in the lobby areas and exhibitions spaces, there are still hordes of school-children, but now instead of being on their way to see Egyptian antiquities, they are looking at a screen that lets them "turn the pages" (virtually) of, say, the Lindesfarne Gospels, seeing larger than life and radiant with screen-light the beautiful images. (New meaning of "illuminated manuscript") Or they are listening on headphones to music from the 1968 on Record: A Year of Revolution audio exhibition.

Now there are also loads of undergraduates, apparently allowed to work here now, though in many cases their "work" looks an awful lot like the "work" students at my home institution do in that library. . . .

In some ways, the BL has become a giant media center, as have so many libraries, with its traditional collections still here for insects like myself who burrow into the past. The King's Library is on show in a giant glass-encased column at the center of the building, so that the spines can be seen, if not touched. Most of the books are in hidden stacks underground. In the summer, there is music on the piazza.

But it is still amazing to work here, to know that just about anything can be found out here. As I look at the pencilled names on the labels on packets of page proofs, and see there one after another eminent Yeatsian, I feel both intimidated and thrilled.

And honsetly? I can hardly wait for the Big Bollywood Dance Class next Tuesday! Yeats was a big fan of India, and I know that if he were alive today, he would join me in my love of Asha Bhosle!

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