Until today, the British Library was one of my favourite places.
In the late 1990s I saw Marx’s old reading room at the British Museum in its last days of use, but, when I got my first reader’s ticket it was to the new British Library on Euston Road.
There was something soothing about the size and clean lines of the new building’s interior. The Rare Books Room was busy enough to give it a feeling of industry and even excitement (you couldn’t help peering over people’s shoulders to see what they were reading). But it was always quiet, and, if you wanted, you could always sit at a bit of a distance from the other readers and find a space to think.
Today, however, the place felt like a cross between a vast refugee camp and a chicken battery. There was the usual Hobbesian scramble for a locker, but this time I was lucky to find even a seat. By the afternoon there was a sign up at the door of the Rare Books Room informing the public that no more seats were available.
Looking around me, I suspect that most of the seats were taken up by overflow from the other reading rooms. But the same overflow had also overflown to every available power socket, seat, bench, table and flat surface in the concourses as well.
The wireless network ran with the alacrity of a 28K modem. No wonder, since laptop cords covered the floors and walls like jungle vines.
There were notices in the restaurant reminding readers that restaurant tables were for eating, and not for reading.
What has changed in the 13 years since I got my first ticket? I’m not sure, but, listening to conversations in the queue for lunch and in the locker room, I suspect that it has become the favourite haunt of London undergraduates.
I spent a whole year at library school learning about how important it was to encourage punters to use the library. So it is with some shame and not a little cognitive dissonance that I now find myself wanting those damn punters out again.