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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015