The war of words at the British Library

In one corner sit the tut-tutting ‘serious’ readers. In the other, flirtatious undergraduates with their iPhones and social lives. At the heart is the battle for the soul – and control – of the British Library. Tom Peck reports

A wrought iron printing press stands amidst the free wifi in the chatter-filled cafeteria of the British Library. It is far from the only juxtaposition of new and old.

On one table a trio of over-educated men, two of whom are wearing bow ties, gravely discuss “how historians are to keep hold of cultural authority without diminishing the cultural investment in their own historiography.”

Such concerns don’t appear to weigh so heavy on the bare shoulders of their neighbouring diner, an undergraduate girl in a denim Hollister skirt tapping away at her Macbook and shouting into her iPhone: “Ooowwww my gooorrrd. Jennifer was aaaaaaaaabsolutely wasted last night. Yuh. Yuh. Yuh I know, yuh, It was sick. What? Oh no. She wasn’t aaaactually sick. Oh my gooord that’s hulaaaarious.”

The battle for the soul of the once venerable institution that is the British Library has been raging for almost a decade. Even the most obtuse of historians would struggle to disagree over the defining moment, the decision in 2004 to admit – shock, horror - undergraduates. For “serious readers”, as they like to call themselves, it has been a disaster. Mobile phones and strange computer alert noises reverberate among the hallowed stacks of books.

Some of optimistic young things, their lives still unfurling like a flower, even have the temerity to flirt with one another, as was indignantly pointed out by the writer Inigo Thomas, who recently reignited the whole imbroglio in an article in the London Review of Books, which has prompted much letter writing in return.

“Opposite me at the same oak and green leather desk are two students, both of whom are reading books, checking their BlackBerries and looking at their Apple and Acer computers,” he wrote. “You wonder, how much more multi can tasking get? … And there’s a phenomenon called ‘noting’, a form of anonymous flirting in the more popular reading rooms, Humanities I and II, or Hum One and Hum Two, as they’re called. You’re seen, then there’s a note on your desk, you have no idea who did the noting.”

Students? Passing notes to one another? Whoever would have thought? But for the author James Obelkevich, who wrote in reply, Thomas had been far too generous.

“Letting in undergraduates means that every spring the reading rooms are swamped with intruders who aren’t doing research at all but merely swotting course textbooks before exams – and annoying readers (and  library staff) with their adolescent  antics. This cynical bums-on-seats policy has caused no end of bad feeling. Nor is it the only example of management’s disdain for core users. Undergraduate exam periods apart, most of the noise in the reading  rooms is caused by the library’s own equipment and staff: yet it refuses to install silent scanners or non-ringing telephones. Concerts in the piazza  are so heavily amplified that the noise disturbs readers in the reading rooms – but not the managers, who consider the endless events and sideshows ‘just as important’ as the library itself.”

Others have written in defence of the irksome undergrads, instead criticising “the tut-tutting, indignant shushing and petulant slamming down of pencils by neurasthenics  trying to enforce the silence of a  padded cell.”

Rather predictably, the young contingent scarcely know they are in a war. Were it not for the five-storey high stack of ancient books in a spotless, hermetically sealed, glass enclosure, the outer atriums of the building next door to King’s Cross station might resemble a giant Apple store.

Sat in rows on comfy chairs with desks attached, almost no one is over thirty, and a casual glance of the  content of the computer screens would suggest there’s a lot of people  researching theses about Facebook these days. In late-July, almost all undergraduates are done for the summer, but nonetheless there is scarcely a spare seat to be had. Do they need to be here?

“What, no I do not need. I don’t go in there,” said Ines Martinez, pointing to the Reading Room, for which access can only be gained with a membership card. “I come here just for doing my studies. It’s nice. I like it.”

There are tour groups and exhibitions too. At the moment a Propaganda Exhibition is running, promoted with a five foot high poster of Uncle Sam. The atmosphere is lively, but it doesn’t feel all that learned.

Michael Jago, a 24-year-old student about to start a Masters Course in Philosophy and Intellectual History is surprisingly unphilosophical about it all. “Yeah, I’ve read about their whinging before. Trust me, Humanities 1 is not like the dance tent at Glastonbury. A bloke next to me was reading some book on Keats yesterday. I’m pretty sure Keats was dead by the time he was my age so I don’t feel too guilty about using the library.

“Being territorial about access to knowledge? A few people have tried that down the years and history tends not to judge them favourably. And I bet there’s one or two old chaps in there who don’t mind the undergraduates hanging around all that much, especially in the weather we’ve been having recently.”

Letters to the editor: The complaints

Many British Library readers apparently find it impossible to turn laptops to “mute” before entering reading rooms; hence, we are bombarded with Microsoft and Apple jinglings, with laptops opening, closing, emailing and so forth. Some readers sniff their way through their researches and – worse – use their fingers as tissues, the fingers then turning the pages.

Peter Cave


BL users who deplore the current accessibility of the library to the young and eager and pine for the days when tickets were limited to “core users”, need to be reminded how unpleasant the old regime was.

When my first reader’s ticket expired in 1978, I went to the BL to renew it. I was subjected to close interrogation by a young librarian who hissed and snapped at me as he fought against allowing me in again.

He was one of those jealous librarians who resent anyone with the impertinence to order books from their collections or to finger them. Grudgingly, he issued me with a new card. Then he shrieked in my face: “Just because you have been allowed a reader’s ticket today, don’t think you will ever be issued with one again.”

Richard Davenport-Hines

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