There are relatively few places where one can escape entirely from the low, persistent hum of the marketing machine at work. Wherever you happen to be, the new style of capitalism – smiling, concerned, jokey and caring – is liable to be reaching you through a screen, a speaker or a hoarding. When, earlier this year, Gordon Brown announced that business had a place in every modern classroom, he was merely announcing another victory for the money-makers as one of the last safe havens fell into mercenary hands.
Now, yet another has hoisted the white flag. The British Library, said to be in urgent need of new sources of funding, is to undergo what has been called "a radical commercial makeover". New lines of merchandising, which include, bizarrely, replicas of the chairs in the library's reading rooms, are to be developed and promoted.
Curatorships and services will be offered for sponsorship so that quite soon there could be, for example, a Kentucky Fried Chicken curator for cookery, a Max Clifford PR Services social history librarian, the Monsanto environmental studies wing. In the manner of the London Underground, the universities and the health service, private industry is being invited to develop and administer what are breezily described as "new facilities".
None of this, apparently, should worry either those of us who use the British Library or people more generally concerned about the creeping poison of capitalism tainting the once-pure waters of research. "There is absolutely no question of the core services... being privatised," the British Library's chief executive, Lynne Bradley, has said.
But why not? The concept of part-privatisation is about as convincing as that of part-virginity – once an institution has been seduced by the market, its virtue is history. So, if the British Library claims it needs private investment to pay for digitisation of its collection, there seems little argument against pop-up ads appearing on the computer screens of readers as they search for a particular freshly digitised item in the catalogue.
Indeed, there seems little reason to stop there. The library's greatest potential promotion opportunity lies in its great, untapped resource – the readers who use it. In an age when there is a peculiar interest in writers and writing, the process of research remains one of the few areas which are unexposed to the public eye. Surely it would make good fiscal sense for the library to open its doors, say, twice a week so that members of the public could move through the reading rooms and watch the action. It might be reasonably said that writers at work are not the most attractive or interesting of spectacles but the same could be said of the long-toed sloth in London Zoo.
Taking the zoo parallel further, it would make sense to introduce an adopt-an-author scheme, so that individuals or companies can contribute towards a literary career, rather as the member of an endangered species can be supported by animal lovers. Investors would be given a unique opportunity to tag along with their chosen investment opportunity, sharing the highs and lows of the writing and publishing process and finally getting their name in a book, thereby enjoying all the pleasures of authorship without the insecurity or boredom.
Of course, there will be rivalry for the big names but, as we now know, competition is always an excellent thing. Just as certain great show-jumpers have in the past taken on the name of their sponsors – Sony Milton or Virtual Village Zalza – so our most distinguished writers could follow the London Library's example. White Teeth would appear under the name of Zadie Boots-the-Chemist Smith, Money would by Martin Lazard-Frères Amis. Intimacy could only be by Hanif Mischcon-de-Reya-Family-Lawyers Kureishi.
First the Reading Rooms, then reading itself, will have become part of the modern marketing experience.