That Reading Room again

Lorcan 1 min read

More about the The British Museum Reading Room, which was until recently a part of the British Library – until the latter moved to its new accommodations at St Pancras.
Some years ago I was asked to contribute an article to a British Library publication on digital libraries. I wanted to write about place, and about the British Library, so I chose to say something, among other things, about the great reading rooms of which this was one.

These put the reader at the centre of a great vault, beyond which it is easy to believe that the world’s knowledge is arrayed ready to be called up as if waiting for that one moment of use. They are personal because each reader has a private space, manifest in the pool of light thrown by the desk lamp, and intimate because each reader is in a private relationship with the collection and builds their own world upon it. However, they are also social: they are visibly great knowledge exchanges, each an inclusive `hive-like dome’[9], which support social flow and assembly. And they are monumental in that they seemed to collect for all time and for all places, making them timeless and apart. Libraries are unlike museums or theatres, their role is not spectacular. The private, intimate relationship of the reader to the library collection and the experiences it engenders makes it easier for the library to enter the fabric of people’s lives. This is not only true of large national or research libraries – but of all types of libraries. And much of the power of great libraries arises where this relationship is enhanced by places which arbitrate in right measure the personal and the social, the intimate and the monumental. [library places and digital information spaces: reflections on emerging network services]

The refurbished British Museum Reading Room has been turned into a fine spectacle, but on the few occasions I have visited it I cannot help but feel a little sad. Although it has been painstakingly restored, the Room has been robbed of its distinguishing characteristic. It has lost the roots that nourished it: the life and collections of a working library. It is like a large, plastic flower.
[9] Louis MacNeice. The British Museum Reading Room. In: Collected poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1966. P. 160.

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