Struggling to find a seat in the British Library?

In the Guardian today, (which I read while actually having my lunch at the BL.) Apparently, Claire Tomalin, Lady Antonia Fraser and Tristram Hunt have all been having difficulty finding free desks in the British Library. According to Tomalin the place is full of ‘schoolgirls giggling.’ Personally, I think the BL is getting overrun with biographers, journalists and popular historians, talking loudly over their cappuccinos. Some of them just come in to use the wifi, you know.

On a more serious point, the BL is very, very busy at the moment – but to an extent, that is a good thing. It’s meant to be the national library, not an exclusive club. It only really gets tricky to find a seat during UoL exam periods. And I don’t see too many students chatting, they’re too busy revising.

More difficult is the obvious change in use of certain reading rooms to meet expanding general reader demand. Rare books (where I usually work) is now being divided up into two sections: one for those actually using pre-1850 material, another for those simply seeking refuge from the bear pit of Humanties 1. That shift in use is also being signalled in other ways – the disappearance of the facsimiles of the Thomason Tracts, which used to be on open access. It may be that the BL thinks that these have now been supersceded by EEBO, which can be accessed on its workstations, but EEBO is really a poor substitute for being able to quickly and easily pull several volumes off the shelves at the same time and have them all open in front of you. How long before rare books and western manuscripts get merged?

Partly, I think this is just a question of how libraries develop over time. It’s easy to forget that the St. Pancras BL is still a pretty new library and I still think they haven’t quite worked out how best to site their open access material (why, for example, are biographical dictionaries split up amongst a variety of reading rooms, rather than placed in one location?) This is one of the reasons why, despite the absence of a coffee shop, I still prefer working in the Bodleian (on the rare occasions that I can get there.)

One thing is for certain, the British Library ‘s services are very much in demand. They deserve better government support than that offered in the mealy-mouthed response to last year’s petition.

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