A week in books

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Indy Lifestyle Online
You don't have to be a bibliophile to love libraries. Stand in the court of Oxford's Bodleian on a summer evening and look up to where the great windows glow like a sky-ship at anchor. Walk through Trinity, Cambridge, to peek at a chequered floor in the Wren Library that begs you to play hopscotch down its sedate length. Remember the first time you worked late in the Round Reading Room under the chain of folded angels' wings which light its dome.

Walking down Judd Street last summer towards the Euston Road, my eyes rose in delight to where the slope of the new British Library roof joins the tower of St Pancras to shape a cathedral above one of central London's dingiest areas. Sad that this glimpse of heaven is visible only from a dull road nobody would choose to visit.

I made my first visit to the Library last week, and came home depressed. Prince Charles was unkind to call it an academy for secret policemen, but he was right about the atmosphere. Everything's fine once you reach your oak and leather desk: 60 terminals allow you to zip through the catalogue; a discreet desk sign lights up 30 minutes later to signal that your books are ready for collection. (This could take half a day in the old Reading Room.)

And there my enthusiasm stops. Library visitors like to read. But the current canteen is so designed that the only way to enjoy a book in it is to drag your heavy table out of the shadows into a sullen puddle of light. A vast Kitaj mural in the entrance hall looks better suited to an Underground station. The six-storey King's Tower, for George III's book collection, resembles a hospital lift shaft.

But it's the exterior that cries out loudest for a different attitude. Visitors are greeted by a red-brick ocean dominated by Paolozzi's massive bronze sculpture, based on Blake's mocking depiction of Newton as God. Even if you'd never seen Blake's original, the figure suggests that the appropriate attitude for scholarship is a hunchbacked crouch of benefit to nobody except orthopaedic surgeons. But what of the space below it, the acres of unwelcoming emptiness unadorned by so much as a potted fern?

Here's my suggestion. Banish the shades of Sixties brutalism. Drill holes for trees and shrubs. Consider a fountain to counteract the roar of traffic on the Euston Road. Bring in local traders and second-hand book dealers. Offer a cafe franchise so that readers don't have to plod off to King's Cross for a cappuccino. We could be bolder. The Millennium Dome is heading for an expensive muddle. Why not scrap the idea, commission an exuberant glass roof for the whole of this unloved piazza and put the British Library firmly on the map as a place to celebrate? Books are for everybody. So, in a perfect world, should be their homes.

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