Librarians in `below stairs' revolt

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OUTSIDE THE British Library, Evan Eabry, a PhD student, was grappling with the striking staff's startling revelations of conditions underground.

While the intellectuals sit in comfort in the swish reading rooms on the huge, new library's upper floors, staff picketing the building yesterday claimed that in the bowels of the building they are forced to toil like men down the mines.

Mr Eabry wondered if the beautiful, pristine pounds 520m establishment at St Pancras in central London could be compared to Fritz Lang's 1927 cult science fiction movie Metropolis, in which a faceless, lumpenproletariat slaves underground, servicing the rich living in luxury above.

After all, said Mr Eabry, a student at the London School of Economics, he had no idea what went on four floors beneath the ground. He just waited for the workers to deliver books in the library's promised record time.

No records were being broken yesterday. The reading rooms, which attract hundreds of academics every day, were closed. Even Germaine Greer, determined not to cross a picket line, cancelled the launch party for her new book, The Complete Woman, last night.

Yesterday, leaflets criticising conditions were all the workers were delivering on a 60-strong picket line. So yes, they admitted, library staff could stand up on the library's lower floors. But these floors - where 12 million books are stored in rooms as large as football pitches - had nothing in common with the library's stunning surface entrance with its huge atrium of creamy Portland stone.

According to Public and Commercial Services Union officials, workers have to cope with artificial light, extreme temperatures and constant deafening noise from the mechanical book-sorting system. And a huge increase in users adds to pressure.

"All you ever see is the beautiful bits of the building," one picket said. "The architects certainly did not have us in mind when they designed the building." The strike, he said, was called because plans to split the workers into two grades would result in some spending more time below.

The decision by the British Library to close the reading rooms for a week was a blow to some people. Trudie Gorr had just flown in from Australia to spend a week in the famous reading rooms researching for her PhD thesis on Roman history. Yesterday the Melbourne University student was trying to find out if the strike would really continue all week.

"It is a bit disappointing," she said, laughing at the understatement. "My history professor used the library just before Christmas and thought it was just fantastic. He said I just had to come and use it. It is a long way to come and not get in."

The library, which opened 18 months ago, years late and millions of pounds over budget, was taking no blame for the strike. Jane Carr, director of public affairs, said that talk of mining-like conditions was a "ludicrous" distraction. "The rooms do go four floors down but they are white, light, high-ceilinged and airy, a great improvement on conditions in the old library."

The dispute, she said, had nothing to do with conditions. It centred on the library's attempts to negotiate more flexible working hours to allow longer opening hours.

Ms Carr admitted that there would be less staff rotation between the lower and upper floors if a proposed new grading system was introduced. But those on the lower floors, she insisted, "regularly come up for air". Not often enough, according to the workers. Yesterday was just the start of a month of industrial action.