I love libraries (Part One) by Cally Phillips

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

The London Library
The London Library stacks
As the Beatles once crooned ‘there are places I’ll remember’ and for me, number 2 in the places I love in the world (the first being the Che Guevara Mausoleum in Santa Clara) is the London Library. This is what a library should be.  When I became a member you still had to have references to join – now they let anyone in who will pay.  It was, and still is to some degree I’m sure, like a gentleman’s club. But open not primarily to gentlemen but to bibliophiles.  It has large wooden desks, huge leather chairs, a cataloguing system which is unique, baffling and frankly inexplicable (that may have changed now as they may have digitised everything) but this in itself gave the place another charm AND meant that you had the excuse to hide in the stacks ‘browsing’ which is what I love to do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the Dewey Decimal system and of knowing exactly what book you are looking for, but there is another pleasure in just roaming the stacks looking through ‘subject’ matter and finding all kinds of things you’d never heard of.  For the last several years I was in London I nearly lived in the London Library when I wasn’t working or at the theatre.  It is the only thing I regret about not living in London. I couldn’t live in London any more than I could live on the moon, but I could live in the London Library. As long as I never had to go out. And I would die happy. And more knowledgeable.

The London Library is probably very different now than it was in the 1990’s and like all such experiences in life, I wouldn’t want to go back and see that change. But I still rate it as one of the all time great places to be, and my favourite library of all time.  I am jealous of anyone who is still a member. Especially now they have online access. Online libraries is something I’ll talk about another time but the combination of the ‘live’ and the ‘online’ London Library is my idea of perfection in books.

Lots of famous people have been members of the London Library. And lots who are not and never will be famous. But like an alma mater, I’m sure we all share one thing – a deep and profound love and respect for this most wonderful and enlightening of libraries.

The  British Library
The 'old' British Library Reading Room.
Nice roof, shame about the rest of it. 
By contrast the British Library is one of my personal greatest disappointments. I had seen the domed reading room. I knew of all the greats (am I allowed to consider Marx a ‘great’) who had spent time there and for years I was desperate to get myself a readers ticket. The day I achieved this I really thought I’d ‘made it’.  I should have quit while I was ahead.  So what was wrong with the British Library reading room?  I couldn’t work there. The noise of all the silence reverberating round was bad enough. But the ‘organisation’ of it was more than I could bear.  First having to go through some form of US passport control before you got in there, where I felt like they were not just going to go through my bags but check my fingernails were clean (they rarely are) before allowing me into the hallowed portals was just the beginning of it.  Once there, I could not get my head round the system that meant you had to ‘ask’ for books to be delivered to your desk.  You could ‘wait’ or nominate a desk for them to be sent to.  The inherent problems here 1) you might have to wait for hours for the book you wanted – of course I could have brought another book in with me to work from – but why would I bring books into the Reading Room when I’d gone there to read books that were in it!  or 2) if you left your place then you’d have to go back and ‘lurk’ round the spot because inevitably someone else was sitting working there by the time your books were delivered.  And I didn’t like sitting there when someone else was lurking behind me waiting for their books to come to the desk I was sitting at.  I don’t think libraries should be like Musical Chairs.  I just didn’t like it. 

‘Feart o’ the Library’

Bus stop. Less appealling than
a library! 
This post is about how I love libraries. So how can I write about the ‘ugly’ in a library. Well, unfortunately I can. I’ve done it in my collection ‘It Wisnae Me.’ It’s a true story of what happened to me (spoiler alert we are talking flashers here) at the Children’s Library in Edinburgh in the 1970’s.  If you want to know more you’ll have to read it yourself. I’ve written enough now.  Next month, I shall be writing about the Academic Libraries I have loved. 


Dennis Hamley said…
Funny. I used to LOVE working in the old BM reading room. so atmospheric, really redolent of Marx, Shaw etc. For a start, I thought the echo was marvellous, resonant in a good way. The indefinable slight smell still haunts my nose. I never found myself cursing the catalogue and don't remember being too inconvenienced by the wait. I was working in there the week before the new BL opened. The sight of all those empty shelves over the gallery was heartbreaking. The new BL, though they do good breakfasts, is boring and I never mastered the electronic catalogue, though that's no surprise. I let my ticket lapse and don't miss it t all, though some of the exhibitions are good.
Jan Needle said…
there are worse problems. manchester university library, a handful of years ago, decided it had to be a young person friendly space, serving coffee and chat rather than knowledge with a capital k. to make the students feel involved and wanted etc. most of the chairs were replaced with beanbags (i'm not making this up), which very quickly became very popular with students looking for a comfortable place for public lurve-making. it's hardened up a bit now i'm told (ooh, sorry missus) but most post grads, staff members, and students with a serious side avoid it like the plague. the british library suffers from some of the same ethos problems. some days you can't move for teenagers studying fifty shades of greys anatomy.
Jan Needle said…
sorry. knowledge with a capital n
CallyPhillips said…
Oh Dennis, I wanted to love the BM. Marx and all that. But the echo drove me to distraction. I need silence to work effectively. As for the rest, presumably the impatience of my youth showing through!
Jan... haven't they renamed them all 'learning centres' or sommat? Though sounds like not too much learning. I get onto University libraries in a later 'part' of this journey. I'm right with you on the iniquity of 'dumbing down' libraries though. When I visit the Uni library I try to go at times students are either asleep or in the pub. When I go to local libraries I try to avoid times that small children are running around weilding picture books. And I get in/out of local libraries like some well perfected guerrilla activity. They have my books lined up, I throw in the old ones, they stamp the new ones (don't even have to show my card!) and off I go (usually to the fish shop!)
JO said…
I recall the first time I worked in the Bodleian Library, and sat at an old wooden desk waiting for books (dusty, smelling of old paper) to come up from the stacks - and feeling that generations of students had worked here. It was hugely humbling at the time.

It may be very different now (Dan would know!!)
Lydia Bennet said…
we have the Lit and Phil subscription library here, you can go in for nothing but have to join to take out books. A wonderful building. Lots of lit events there too. Most of our council libraries have been shut or wound down, but for one big modern one in the city centre.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

A Glittering Gem of Black, Gothic Humour: Griselda Heppel is intrigued by O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

Little Detective on the Prairie

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee