As I've observed before, it's a small world, that Internet. Today on the train to work I read an article in the Times about lack of space at the British Library reading room: "Two years after one of the world’s greatest libraries opened its doors to undergraduates and anyone working on research, high-profile writers and academics say that the struggle to find a desk is now intolerable. Library directors stand accused of increasing visitor numbers to boost funds and performance bonuses."
The problem is, apparently, the students. Initially rallying (mentally) to the defence of this much-maligned societal group, I read on and realised that the issue is not so much the students per se, but that they go into the reading room and don't read — rather they sit around chatting, etc. Whether they really are students, or whether they are just random people wanting to spend a day in the warm and dry, there are plenty of places in the BL to go and chat — over a drink or some food if you want to – without having to go into the reading room. So it does seem a bit strange, even antisocial, to natter in the reading room while others are trying to concentrate. It is rather like reading your book quietly on the train when someone plonks themselves next to you and starts to organise their next trip somewhere by yelling down their mobile phone, as happened to me tonight on the way home.
As it happens, I was due to have lunch today with an eminent author and senior academic who, coincidentally, was in London to do some research at the BL: Professor Dame Honoraria Grump, FRS, B. Lit, VC, OM, so I asked her opinion. She confirmed that the queues are just as described, and that she is frequently reduced to perching on a windowsill if she is lucky, because she cannot arrive very early at the BL due to the distance she has to travel to London. We speculated that the students may not have vacation access to other London University libraries if they live in London but study at universities elsewhere, and/or that individual universities' libraries may not, these days (as opposed to "our day") be very good compared with the BL.
When I arrived home tonight, I opened my "home email" and found that Dave Lull had already sent me a link to the online version of the Times article. Far flung we may all be, our little band of brothers and sisters, but our minds are in tune!
Here's some more from the Times, you might enjoy it:
"Lady Antonia Fraser and Claire Tomalin have swapped horror stories of interminable queues. Library users complain that the line to enter the new building in St Pancras, central London, has recently been extending across its enormous courtyard.
Lady Antonia said: “I had to queue for 20 minutes to get in, in freezing weather. Then I queued to leave my coat for 20 minutes [at the compulsory check-in]. Then half an hour to get my books and another 15 minutes to get my coat. I’m told it’s due to students having access now. Why can’t they go to their university libraries?”
Of particular irritation is the notion that many undergraduates now come to the library to relax, meet and text friends, and play on laptops, rather than to read books. “It’s become a social gathering,” Lady Antonia said.
Ms Tomalin described the crowds as intolerable: “It’s full of what seem to be schoolgirls giggling. I heard one saying, ‘I’ve got to write about Islam. Can I have your notes?’ It’s what you expect to hear in a school.”
Of the long queues she said: “It is absurd. It’s access gone mad. Access has many good points, but making the British Library, which was for specialist readers, into something for general readers seems to me terrible.”
The historian Tristram Hunt said that it was a scandal that it was impossible to get a seat after 11am when students were there. Many people travelling from outside London complain that they cannot get to the buidling [sic] any earlier. “Students come in to revise rather than to use the books,” he said. “It’s a ‘groovy place’ to meet for a frappuccino. It’s noisy and it’s undermining both the British Library’s function, as books take longer to get, and the scholarly atmosphere.” "