Disquiet in the reading room

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The Independent Online
A GREEN linen suit and a pair of Jesus sandals stood out from the grey-suited mass at this week's meeting of the National Heritage Select Committee's hearing into the fiasco known as the new British Library.

The suit, accessorised with contrasting green tie and pocket handkerchief, was worn by Lauro Martines, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. The Jesus sandals, worn with bare legs and loose skirt, belonged to Etrenne Lymbery, freelance writer specialising in English and French painters of the 1890s. Together with an antiquarian bookseller named Brian Lake, they had come to put the case of the Regular Readers Group (RRG) of the British Library.

What the RRG wants is the retention, for pre-1850 books, of the beloved domed reading room built between 1854-57 in a quadrangle of the British Museum. It is opposed in this by the management of the library and the Department of National Heritage, who argue that the new building in St Pancras, currently under construction, will best serve both scholars and fragile books.

It is a byzantine argument - as tortuous as the construction of the St Pancras building itself, budgeted to cost pounds 160m and now expected to cost pounds 450m, under construction for 12 years and still with no definite completion date. Following allegations of mismanagement and possible fraud, it is to be the subject of a second investigation by the National Audit Office and probable litigation against the builders by the Government.

Amid all the sound and fury of a major public scandal is the still small voice of the RRG, an elite group of academics and scholars out of a total of 100,000 library users, who meet informally in the corridors and in the antiquarian bookshop across the road.

Their case for keeping some books in the British Museum is based on conflicting theories of book preservation, resource allocation, storage systems and new technology. The underlying theme, however, is a simple one. This is a clash between the Jesus sandals and the grey suits, between old and new worlds.

In the old world is the reading room itself, standing for the quaint, pre-Thatcher values of tradition, liberalism, freedom, excellence, internationalism. The room was designed by Antonio Panizzi, an Italian revolutionary and political refugee. Its most famous user was Karl Marx; his fellow users included Lenin, Yeats, Gandhi and Virginia Woolf. The graffiti in the gent's includes learned discussions on the history of capitalism.

The new world, by contrast, stands for rationalisation, efficiency, computerisation. 'Why should you have free access to the British Library?' Sir John Gorst, Tory MP for Hendon North, asked the RRG.

'You've never charged before,' said Professor Martines, who has been using the library for 25 years.

'Are you using the past to justify the future?' Sir John came bouncing back. The regular readers were thanked for their time after only 20 minutes. Mr Lake rushed off to an antiquarian book fair; Ms Lymbery and Professor Martines were flustered into leaving their seats to make way for more men in grey - this time accompanying the Secretary of State for National Heritage, Peter Brooke.

The men in grey did an efficient job of presenting the RRG as Luddite eccentrics, fearful of computers, neurotically dependent on the fusty rituals of the reading room, with its ancient, highly time-consuming book retrieval system, strict rules about how to treat the books, the glares exchanged if a regular seat is 'stolen'.

The reading room has long been known as a home to library nerds. In his fine pamphlet The Reading Room, P R Harris, a library staff member since 1947, quotes Thomas Carlyle's reflection on its users: 'I believe there are several people in a state of imbecility who come to read in the British Museum.' Later in the century a reading room superintendent recalled that 'lately a gentleman asked for a work on the subject of sorcery, and afterward wished to know if there was any wise man in the room who could raise the Devil for him, but unfortunately we had no warlock at hand'.

Today, however, the readers are serious academics and scholars. 'It's impossible for loonies to get in,' reports a regular user, 'because it's policed so heavily.'

'I was put through the third degree to get my pass when I began my PhD in 1972,' said Bart Smith, library press officer.

The old world RRG is certainly a slick operation in print, if not performing in committee. Its new report, The Great British Library Disaster, is a model of polemicism. St Pancras remains a mess of concrete mixers and building scandal.

Back in the reading room, life continues apace. The biggest drama of the week is a 'stolen' chair. That's the way the readers want it.

Sandra Barwick is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)