Reading matter

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 July, 2006, 12:00am

The hallowed institution that is the British Library has been getting a little crowded of late. Despite our information technology age, with Google solving all our scholarly conundrums in 0.7 seconds, more and more people are venturing inside.

It's all part of the library's master plan to be more inclusive. Some 400,000 people are using the reading rooms inside the 112,000-square-metre, 14-floor building each year. They take up the 1,200-odd seats to peruse some of the 150 million items, although some simply have a cup of coffee in the cafe.

Summer is the traditional peak period, when visitors' numbers are swelled by ranks of undergraduates, prompting some serious overcrowding. Remedial measures include staff acting like traffic police, redirecting readers from the more crowded reading rooms to less-visited dens of learning.

The result? Friction. When undergraduates armed with iPods, mobile phones, noisy laptops and modern manners mix with bow-tied, wizened boffins in the Rare Books and Music room, tempers fray.

Although it was once the second home of Karl Marx, the British Library has been a hotbed of elitism. Hardcore academics refer snobbily to Reading Room One as 'paperbacks'. They say it's populated with student plebs reading classics accessible in normal university libraries.

The Humanities 2 room perches on the mezzanine above, the preserve of writers and self-styled 'serious researchers', many with their own special seats. They look down, snarling, at the 'tourists' below.

Not all British Library policies are inclusive. They have banned pens throughout the reading rooms, lest silly readers correct typos and literals (apparently very common), or worse, scribble on rare Tibetan manuscripts. This policy is not so silly. How many of us own pencils? Right. And who sells pencils? Places like the British Library bookshop.

It's a small, though perhaps unintended, way to redress the much-talked-about funding gap afflicting all British libraries. Budget rises are typically 3 per cent, but periodical inflation is an estimated 7 per cent. With the British Library housing 3 million new items a year, this gap in funding makes some users unhappy. The situation is ruining the academic aesthetic, some complain. Others, notably the Times Literary Supplement, brands the library 'anti-scholar'.

From such rumblings, you might never guess the truth: the British Library is not full of soulless banks of computers. Instead, it is largely a charming library of books and manuscripts. That is why more and more people want to go there - to learn in the 'old school' manner.