Sweet dreams in the round reading room
The British Library is moving; we shall not be snoozing there againBy John Ryle • December 1996 • City of Words • London • The Guardian • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 1,131 words
If you’re an intellectual, a bibliomane, an antiquarian, a scholar, an amateur lexicographer, a historical conspiracy-theorist or an aspirant world-conquering ideologue, and if you have not yet joined the British Library—a privilege to which, if you are a UK resident, you are entitled, at least if the books you need are not available in your local branch library—then you should step along sharpish to Great Russell Street and apply for a reader’s ticket.
Otherwise you will miss the last days of the Library’s Round Reading Room, that vast and splendid place where, for a century and a half, a diverse band of literati— bearded polymaths, goateed students, bald-pated retirees and bewigged bluestockings—have read, written and dozed on the leather-topped desks, all bathed alike in the filtered light that flows down from the high windows of Sidney Smirke’s glorious, colossal, glassed dome.
This quiet blue space is the secret treasure at the heart of the British Museum. The reading room itself is comparatively free of books. There is a modest triple tier reached by cast-iron walkways round the curved walls; below these, housed in two low, concentric bookcases in the centre of the room are the six or seven thousand weighty volumes of the library catalogue. The latter have been complemented, these past few years, by a bank of terminals giving access to the on-line version. Ranks of blue leather desks radiate, spoke-like, from a central hub formed by this double ring of shelves. Their lines form a mirror image of the gilded ribs of the roof. Together, the catalogue and the desks, the library and its readers, compose a star-burst floorplan, a mandala of learning, one fully visible only from a position unattainably high in the dome.
But now it seems that the desk where Marx wrote Capital—and hundreds of others where countless anonyms have laboured on their own published or unpublished visions of redemption—have been consigned, along with the leather-bound catalogues and the cast iron walkways, to the dustbin of history. The Camden Council Planning Committee has approved the conversion of the Round Reading Room into an information centre for the British Museum, part of a wider reorganization already in train that will take the Library to new buildings in St Pancras and bring the Museum’s ethnographic collection back to Bloomsbury from its present exile in Piccadilly. The literary incunabula in the Reading Room will be replaced by vast screens and multi-media displays. The room will be stripped of calm; what was an oasis will become a public concourse.
It would be hard to match the loveliness of the Reading Room; and the replacement building at St Pancras seems particularly unlikely to do so. The new library is still unfinished a dozen years after construction began; and the design has had the worst press a building could get, compared variously to a job centre, a prison, a secret police academy and a mausoleum. It is, it has been suggested, a place better suited to burning books than reading them. Yet the rage of the literati against the big change has availed nothing. The Library is moving; we have lost the Round Reading Room; it remains only to mourn its passing.
To read or sleep?
All that said, I must confess that in a decade or more of being a pass-holder I have not done a great deal of work in the British Library. I’ve done more reading and writing, probably, in the pizza place in Coptic Street across the road. The Reading Room is overly good for dreaming in; its hush is too conducive to sleep and reverie. And I am not the only one. For every reader who is immersed in a book, another is day-dreaming, deep in fantasy, or lost in the mystic consciousness of sleep. (And another, it may be surmised, is adding to the remarkably esoteric collection of obscene grafitti in the Gents’ downstairs.)
In the past I worked sometimes in the North Library, an annex of the Round Reading Room. This is a more sepulchral place, intended for readers who are consulting manuscripts, particularly valuable or fragile books, or pornographic works with restricted access—those bearing the euphemistic Omega mark, a sign that they must be read under the gaze of a librarian. The desks are covered in dark green leather instead of blue; there is little natural light. But the North Library is the workplace of choice for some readers. Peter Ackroyd, the novelist and biographer, used to work there at a desk near mine. He was a monument to industry, a reproach to lesser men, writing in longhand, working his way through enormous piles of books endlessly replenished by patient librarians. Many is the time I would wake from a doze to see that he had taken notes on another half dozen of these volumes while I had been sleeping.
Most readers and writers have a more or less idiosyncratic relationship with their place of study; this follows from the intense feeling for books as physical objects that is fostered by libraries. Alberto Manguel and Sven Birkerts—two recent writers on the subject—have described the sensual pleasure of reading. They stress the physicality of books, their look and feel and smell, as against the insubstantial, pixellated quality of text on screen. Another writer, the critic Ron Rosenbaum, culture columnist for The New York Observer, has written— approvingly—of the role of books in “dramatising, eroticizing and fetishizing of the act of reading”.
By the same token, though, books can induce a drugged stupor in the indolent or narcoleptically-inclined. You might think, then, that for someone like me, self-confessedly wont to doze off, tramp-like, in libraries, it wouldn’t matter much what the place looked like. But that’s not the point. The Round Reading Room and the North Library, admirable places for reading as they are, are also excellent for taking a nap. There are no better places than these for a lover of learning to wake up in and start reading again. And soon we will wake there no more. ★
In the conversion of the great court at the British Museum and its incorporation into the main space of the museum the reading room was, in fact, preserved, complete with catalogue and desks. The entire building is now under a vast new glass roof and wrapped in a monumental staircase, with a restaurant and an exhibition space at the top and the museum store tucked away below. It is an ingenious conversion. Today, though, the reading room is more an exhibit than a place of active learning. To sit at a desk there now feels like being a performance artist, a living sculpture in a mausoleum of the book.