One of the most pleasurable parts of writing my book proposal has been spending an evening or two a week propping up a desk in the British Library, which is surprising, because when I was an undergrad, I HATED it here. I spent a horrific spring term at the BL nine years ago researching my dissertation, which for some reason I’d decided to write about accents and ‘corrupted’ language in 18th-century northern Irish theatre (attn 20-year-old me: what?). Most of the plays I was looking at haven’t been republished since they were first printed, for the outstanding reason that they are not very good, so I had to go to up to Euston to read them in first editions.
And the building was just horrible then – there was no natural light, the air was weirdly still, the cloakroom queue took forever, the chairs were too big, the tea in the cafe was so expensive, and everyone seemed to know what they were doing except me. (Had the physical building become a kind of focus point for all my dissertation-related stress, including about how I’d literally be kicked out of the country if I didn’t do well enough? Surely not.)
So I was surprised when I came back last year, renewed my card (“Er, I’m writing a book-” “You poor sod. There’s a bar on the ground floor.”) and started a weekly date in Humanities 2, and it was lovely!
The foyer is massive, vertical and airy! There are easy coin-operated lockers in the basement! The desks are clean and solid, the chairs are cosy green leather, the light inside is pleasant and warm! Almost every time I leave – especially now that the days are starting to get shorter – I wish I could stay all night.
The steady, calming artificial light means that inside the library it feels a little out of time, or maybe that time there runs more seasonal than hourly, because the rhythm of the academic calendar is hard to miss. When I renewed my reader card, it was a few weeks before the end of term: most of the rooms were full (I eventually found some space in the Newsroom) and a few students were placidly napping in the hall outside Manuscripts.
This weekend I had a conversation with a friend, who just graduated with her PhD, about our favourite reading rooms, and especially tactics during exam week. The big question is whether to order your books to one of the nice Humanities rooms and gamble on getting a seat there, or take a punt and order them to the Newsroom or Rare Books – where it’s easier to get a seat, but the desk layouts are a bit more awkward. (Books take about 30-60 minutes to arrive, and you have to order them to a specific room. If you order books before setting out, but find the room is full when you get there, you have to go find a seat in another room, and ask for your books to be transferred there, which takes about an hour. It’s very annoying.)
The tea is still pretty expensive but it’s wonderful being here to work on something I actually enjoy. I keep running into people I haven’t seen in years. And I love the locker room at eight o’clock, when everyone’s just been kicked out of the reading rooms and we’re pulling our jackets and bags on, and everyone else looks a bit dazed with what we were thinking about upstairs, not really ready for the slight shock of stepping back out into the King’s Cross night.