Book Keeping

I am in an agony of classification. 

Indicate the number (on a scale of 1-10) that best corresponds to how important each attribute is to you. Give a higher rating to attributes that are more important to you and a lower one to those that are less important to you. For example, a 1 indicates the attribute is not important at all to you, while a 10 indicates it is extremely important to you. In the example below, the rating of 8 means that the attribute is towards the more important end of the scale.

It’s too hard. I go to the tea room for a break. The compactly Mediterranean man with the black hair and the aggressive face (which softens so surprisingly if you actually speak to him) is standing defensively behind some high-end pastries. An extravagance of pink icing sits atop a swollen muffin, adding value to what is essentially a fairy cake in a way that is viscerally off-putting. I am sure the staff are no happier about the British Library’s decision to outsource their catering to Peyton & Byrne than the aggrieved library regulars (let alone remunerated in proportion to the newfound profits of that ‘unashamedly British Bakery‘), so I try not to take out my anger on them. Which is hard. Because stockpiling quinoa, feta, beetroot etc into a small salad bowl until it hangs precariously over your 1950s pastel themed tray will cost you £4.00 and whatever happened to the unashamedly British baked potato? 

There is safety in books. There is communion. There is order.

To my mother, libraries smell of a Britain waking up from rationing, and induce an extreme and horrifying existential anxiety. ‘Here is Everything You Will Never Read’ shout the dusty tomes. For me, ever the optimist, libraries represent the blissful, undestroyed promise of Everything I Am Yet To Discover. Lucky enough to be born to middle class parents in the golden era of the local library, before they were transfigured by CDs, cappuccinos and cuts, libraries have always felt like my birthright. (Actually I was quite excited when our library got CDs, since it coincided with that other golden era of my youth, that of the mixtape.) I was lucky enough to be in the library before I realised it, immersed in Meg and Mog on a leaking bean bag (the exquisite smell of those mysteriously half matte half shiny pages). Before the soupy physical world of childhood (long since lost to my conscious brain) hardened and froze, only to thaw and resolve itself into a series of tactile fetishes. And then later, I was lucky enough to be left alone by open minded, open-toe sandalled librarians, as I avidly flicked through the pages of The Rachel Papers (I still haven’t actually read it) for the sex bits.

The tables outside the tea-rooms are aggressively empty: no one else seems to be having a coffee break this early. I go back to Humanities 2. I rummage for my card in the debris of my tellingly transparent plastic bag, my recently sharpened pencil piercing the flesh underneath my fingernail, an illicit pen making itself known. The man at the desk looks on patiently: it’s the grey haired man with the crescent smile that broadens theatrically across his commedia-mask of a face. I like him. If it was the disgruntled woman with the tootightlibrary-uniform, the unfortunate surely-a-wig and the narrow silver glasses, this moment would have slipped over into fluster. I find the card. He glances customarily at the strip of green with its cheap, utilitarian print and appropriately unflattering photograph. I feel its familiar flimsiness in my fingers.

And instantly I am in a Save the Whales t-shirt standing near a turnstile and handing something to a smiling lady. I don’t know what she looks like because she has blurred in my mind into a Vaseline-hazed amalgam of eighties sweaters and perms. Her desk is still tall enough that I can exaggerate the awkwardness of this gesture and make a show of my childish innocence in an adult world. (I am not happy about the disturbing rate at which my body seems to be spurting upwards in an outrage of pre-pubescence.) The white plastic card I hand to her is reassuringly thick, and democratically emblazoned with a simple blue and white logo of the pre-marketing era. I can see the strip on the back, rough to the touch, where my eight-year-old self confidently balloonprinted a gauche signature in blue felt tip, much to the displeasure of my recently sophisticated nine-year-old counterpart. This is nevertheless my proudest possession. Proof of my standing. My ticket to importance. Oh how I long for a wallet, with as many cards as my parents have in theirs. (The tragedy of the imagined joys of adulthood.)

The smiling lady stamps an indigo print of approval onto a cardboard inlay, and then slots it into a plastic sleeve glued to the inside cover of My Family and Other Animals. Or perhaps she swipes it under a chunky electrical device which makes a satisfying beep, and perhaps it’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾. I can’t be sure. 

Which of the following best describes what you primarily use the Reading Rooms for? Please tick one only.

Other academic research.

Author-related research.

Other personal purposes. Tick.

I look around. I was late this morning and someone had stolen my habitual place next to the man writing his book on war dogs and so I am begrudgingly next to what appears to be an undergraduate. It’s Easter and the place is heaving with them. They do not yet know that it is not ok for them to be here. That this is not a place for the otherwise affiliated. That they do not yet need the shelter of these atmosphere-protected walls, the balance of these sizeable perches with their overhead lamps. They do not yet know that they too will flock to the British Library like homing pigeons, affronted by a world which looks indifferently upon the academic rigour to which they applied their youth. They are not yet not writing novels, theses, articles, while avidly composing prosaic tweets. (It’s unfortunate that Reading Rooms now have free wi-fi. But then again, look! The word ‘flowers’ is used a staggering forty two times in Mrs Dalloway. An extra two hundred words examining Woolf’s questionably florid prose bring me closer to meeting my deadline. Thank you the internet.)

For which of the following reasons do you use the British Library Reading Rooms? Please select all that apply.

Depth and breadth of the collections. Tick.

Unique items in the collections. Tick.

Support from British Library staff. Tick.

Comfortable working environment. Tick.

More likely to meet peers and colleagues at the British library.

Talking ironically about libraries, people like to reiterate the cliché; to refer, eyebrows askew, to what is in fact a long since abandoned hope of depravity in some Dewey-decimaled nook: musk amidst the must. People love the notion that Larkin was in fact lusting amidst the shelves. I watch the undergraduate twirl her hair in an ostentation of thought, but otherwise the high vaulted room is noticeably absent of pheromones. A large number of people are actually working, requesting from the collections, and using the library for its intended purpose. And the roaming self-employed are too well dressed and too neurotically idle actually to be thinking about sex.

Imagine that the British Library ceased issuing Reader Passes…


…but allowed existing Readers to sell their Pass. What is the minimum amount you would be willing to accept as a monthly payment in return for your Pass? i.e. You would give up your reader Pass forever in return for a monthly payment.

I am so shocked I actually make a noise. The undergraduate looks at me with glazed, sardonic eyes.

This question is not an indication that the Library plans to stop issuing Reader Passes. It is designed to capture the value that you place on the British Library Reading Rooms. It is important you try to answer this question, to enable us to place a value on the Reading Rooms of the British Library and the Services they provide.

When I sat down at this desk an hour ago, this questionnaire – which had of course to be filled out, and urgently, politically, libraries, cuts etc. – was a reassuring wad of procrastination. Now, it is hastening on an all too familiar panic attack, wrapped up in rage. I flick back aggressively to the first page.

Dear Reader,

When Austen addresses me in this way it pisses me off (a little presumptuous no, Jane?). But when the British Library does so I feel proud: part of the team. This is the team that does in fact pick me, lets me play, and doesn’t leave me standing in the corner of the playground behind the second fattest girl in school.

Nevertheless, this is the next sentence:

The British Library is working with Oxford Economics to undertake an economic evaluation of the British Library… 

The research will aim to quantify the impact of the Library on the UK economy. 

At one stage of the battle to save Kensal Rise Library, the leader of Brent Council declared absurdly ‘I have spoken before to campaigners and understand that taking the books away means that it will no longer technically be a library.’ 

There is a very real and very urgent need to maintain libraries for their technical purpose. But this is not quite what I am thinking about.

I am sitting here, on this Tuesday morning, one of many not technically using the BL as a library. The British Library is to the self-employed of London what the office is the worker. A physical manifestation of purpose. A building with rules. A place where you can get free, cooled water.

But this is not quite what I am thinking about either.

I do in fact use the British Library for its technical purpose from time to time, requesting volumes from the everything I have never read. But the deep security that this building gives me, is not so much about what is actually here, as what might be here, and the guarantee that it is being kept and remembered. It is about the blow this strikes to mortality and lost memory: possibility in the midst of despair. Someone more organized and consistent than me is charting, and classifying, and storing and racking it all up.

Perhaps this is why there is nothing worse than an incompetent librarian. It is not just the institutionalized aggression of a third rate library employee that grates. It is not just that they, like some aggrieved bus driver or post office worker, would like to make you very aware that they work in a SYSTEM. Which in some way you are obstructing. And that this SYSTEM, although they would protect it to the death, has been the death of their soul, the destruction of their joy, and there is no way you are getting out of this exchange without having the weight of this resentment hammered into you. It is not just this that grates. It is the accompanying, far from conscious sense that if this is to whom all the stories and senses of the world have been entrusted, then we are all seriously screwed. 

For someone who loves systems, I am in an irritation of classification. 

I can’t classify the value of the British Library. Not everything is a service with a function and a pastel themed tray. Libraries are indeed systems for the sake of it. They are gloriously anti-commercial. They are the slow and futile stacking up of sense in the face of chaos.

And so I fill out the form.