Libraries are great aren’t they? Clean, quiet spaces with excellent facilities: the toilets in the larger ones can be handsome and some have the luxury of an attached café or smorgasbord pop-up. Most are full of nooks and jitties where you can escape for a well-deserved nap after a good procrastination session. They have books too, plus manuscripts, artifacts and other ephemera which may be of interest to some of us.
I don’t use libraries. By which I mean: I don’t work in them.
I’ve never experienced working in a prison camp (although I did tend bar at The King Power Stadium as an undergraduate) but some library experiences are, I imagine, similar to this if one is prone to infantile theatrics as I so clearly am. If you are a fan of historical re-enactments – or those TV documentaries where a family has to pretend it’s 1980 and the kids lose their minds because the graphics on their Atari console are “rubbish” – plus you have an added interest in experiencing a first-hand GULAG simulation for FREE then look no further than the British Library.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not slagging off the British Library as an institution. It is one of the richest and most celebrated libraries in the world, the resources of which are indispensable to the researcher. The staff at the BL are pleasant, kind and courteous and I wish them nothing short of every single one of their hopes and dreams coming true. My focus is not on visiting to access a specific item or resource, but rather, on using the library as a workspace.
My consternation is with the system more than anything. Normally if I want to sit at a table and write I approach the desired area with my materials and do just that. At the BL things are a little more complicated. First off you have to empty your belongings into a locker and then deposit the items you wish to bring with you into one of the reading rooms into a clear plastic bag: pencil (no pens allowed), laptop, power leads, notepad, Minox microfilm camera, cyanide capsule etc. I’m already annoyed at this point because I’m clumsy and I have one of those bags where one false move means that everything spills out to reveal the inner penetralia of my cluttered life. You need a pound coin to use the lockers too. This inconvenience sours my day.
I then trudge up the grand steps, heading for Humanities 2 (every academic I know recommends this room, I don’t know why). I trudge because I know what’s coming: Security Checkpoint Number Two (there’s one at the front door). Hopefully I have remembered my library card because that’s the first thing to present to the guard(s). Next I empty my clear plastic bag and my items are manhandled for contraband. Upon admittance I search for a desk and set up my workstation. The very second that this is done I always, always need the toilet. I can’t leave my stuff so I have to pack it all up and go through the security process I went through five minutes beforehand. Following my ablutions I then have to go through this a third time. And so on. I know the checks are important and not just because everyone is trying to walk out with Beowulf tucked under their arm or a couple of New Testament papyri manuscripts secreted between their laptop lid. I understand all that, it just feels like a massive waste of everyone’s time when I could simply have worked at home and closeted my water in a convenient manner.
Don’t boo me. I’m not really bemoaning libraries, they are vital and I have enjoyed stints at The National Library in Dublin (again, brilliant staff), had some cracking naps on the upper floors of Senate House in between ghost-hunting and have enjoyed exhibitions at the British Library (the Gothic one was incredibly good). As the Manic Street Preachers sang: ‘the libraries gave us power’ (as well as summer holiday schemes: thanks, Westcotes Library), which, honestly, is a blessing that I do not undervalue despite my diatribe. It’s the culture of using the library as an office that doesn’t agree with me. I now have a desk in my bedroom that comes with the daily luxury of gloopily dripping out of bed and sliding into my chair like an amorphous jelly where I scratch my head at all the nonsense I wrote the previous day, before deleting it all to start again like some lamentable, twenty-first century Sisyphus.
Do you use the library as an office? What’s your preferred workspace? Do you care about ANYTHING?