Letter: British Library readers ill-served

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The Independent Online
Sir: Ruth Picardie's report ('Disquiet in the reading room', 2 July) does no justice to the vast majority of the British Library's 100,000 regular readers who care little as to who is sitting in which seat but do care passionately about scholarship, about the library's caretaking responsibilities for a collection of books, maps and documents of world importance, and about accessibility to that priceless repository.

Speaking for this cohort of readers, I would like to point out that my worries focus on such basic matters as: will I find a seat in an overcrowded room (the new building offers only 70 additional places)? Will I get a turn at one of the far-too-few on-line catalogues (already there are long queues at the few computers that have to be shared between those needing no more than a quick check of a specific reference and those spending hours 'browsing' through entire sections of the catalogue)? Will I continue to be able to get at the old multi-volumed catalogues, still of inestimable value for older material or certain types of academic projects? Will I be able to pace my own work or will some library 'manager' attempt to dictate how many books I see every day? How long will it take for the books I request to reach me? Will they be in a decent state of repair, suitable for photography? Will I have sufficient space around me to handle, and compare, huge folios without disturbing my neighbour?

If I order material in advance, will it all be there on the specified day or will harassed staff be fetching it only when I have arrived and am asking for it? Are the collections being adequately added to and updated and is new material promptly available to readers, or do we have to wait two years for it to be catalogued?

After nearly three decades of using the British Library, I have consistently had nothing but praise for all I came into direct contact with. If the experience of the last year or so are anything to go by, when things have gone badly wrong (explained away as 'reorganisation' or 'reallocation' but meaning, of course, staff and financial shortages and low moral), my concern for the future workability of the library is profound. Old building or new, I do not care: in the final analysis, a library's reputation rests on its service to its readers. A caricature of the latter is a poor advertisement and even poorer message to those who wield power (and hold the purse strings) but who do not seem to know how to use a research library or appreciate the weight of its ambassadorial role.

Yours faithfully,

CATHERINE DELANO

SMITH

London, N3

3 July

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