The University Library is not really a place I happily frequent. I think people naturally divide into two camps: those who prefer to work at home and those who prefer library spaces. I’m steadfastly in the former because I like to eat while I’m thinking, and lie down if I’m doing some very hard thinking, and resort to doing the washing up if I’ve ground to a halt in my thinking. But the library cannot be avoided when it’s a question of research work; on the positive side, it’s a very good resource, with over five and a half million books inside it. On the negative side those volumes are picked over every day by academic vultures, with the result that, by definition, the good books have already been taken out by someone else. It’s also a disquieting space that I don’t find conducive to comfortable working. The outside is far from attractive; the library was designed by the architect Giles Gilbert Scott who, so they tell me, was famous for his power stations, and a glance at the exterior could clearly confirm this. It’s a brick monstrosity with a certain je ne sais quoi of incarceration, two large flat fronted wings, and a 48 metre high tower in the middle, at the top of which legend suggests the dirty books are held. Apparently it has an uncanny resemblance to The Ministry of Love in Orwell’s 1984. However, the inside never seems to correspond to the outside, for me, as corridors stretch off in all directions and eventually the weary traveller comes across an inner courtyard. Librarians pop out of doors that hide unimaginable spaces, and book trolleys can be heard grinding their way up service lifts from the bowels of the building. Most people have their own little circuits that they trot round, visiting the book stacks for their own subject areas and the two main public gathering spaces, the reading room and the tea room (this latter providing the venue for what passes for gossip and intrigue in the groves of academe). The library certainly contains vast tracts of book storage space, rare manuscripts, administrative areas etc, that I have never set foot in. All I know about labyrinths is that minotaurs live there, so I’ll stay clear of those shadowy regions, thank you very much.
The books I need to consult are split into two categories; more recent publications that are in paperback format and which have to be ordered from the reading room, and hardback books that are available off the book stacks. In the case of the former you have to fill in a little form and check an old-fashioned notice stand that tells you how long you will have to wait for them to be fetched. Where do these books come from? I have no idea. They lurk in the mysterious hidden zones of the library where only those with special access passes may enter. In the meantime you can hang around the reading room which is large, vault-like and lined with the kind of tomes that even I, who sprints to the bookshelves of friends to see what they’ve got, would never dream of bothering to look at. It is filled in orderly fashion with heavy oak desks that seat 6-8 people with a reading lamp suspended in the middle. For years I never knew how you managed to turn them on, and sat peering at volumes in the gathering dusk, wondering what miracle one had to perform to allow there to be light. This is not a place you want to linger in over the examination period when you can cut the air into thick slices of panic. Generally I wander off to check out the book stacks.
Now the idea is that you look books up on the state-of-the-art library catalogue at the banks of computers in an adjoining room. I have my suspicions that the new cataloguing system is simply a way for librarians to have a good laugh at us impractical, technology-unfriendly academics as many a time I’ve searched for research books that I know are in there somewhere, only to be told they have either vanished without trace or never existed. So I’ve found it better to browse, which is possible once you have got your head around the way the books are organised, which is by size (oh yes) and then by subject area and then by chronology. The book stacks are long, claustrophobic, dingy rooms with tiny desks at narrow windows with bars on one side, and lengthy floor to ceiling shelving units stretching down the other. There are lights on timers that click away like death watch beetles while you search, and then abruptly plunge you into darkness. I find the book stacks incredibly spooky, particularly up on the sixth floor, somewhere around the theoretical anthropology/ philosophy sections where people hardly ever go. A couple of years ago when I was still writing fiction, I began a thriller in which the murders all took place up in these book stacks. Anything could happen up there and it might be days before a body was found. Such thoughts often cross my mind as I scrabble about on hands and knees peering at the bottom shelf (where the books I want inevitably are) as the lights suddenly go out. It’s a relief to get out of there and back to the main corridors which are always busy with people.
Apparently there is an unofficial paper trail game being played out in secret amongst the library users. A cryptic clue tucked inside a book leads to another book, inside which is another clue and so on. It’s said that those who reach the end are honour-bound to provide another clue, but I’ve never even come across one yet myself. And the other little fact that pleases me about the library is that its biggest donation came from one Lord Acton, Catholic Historian and Professor of Modern History 1885-1902. On his death he bequeathed his research library, which consisted of a cool 60,000 volumes. For all those litbloggers out there who worry about the size of their book collections, never fear; this might put them in perspective.
It’s not all libraries I dislike, however. My college library is lovely, with a blond wood and glass mezzanine level that seems wonderfully airy and is great for spying on everyone coming and going. Perhaps other bloggers have library spaces they particularly like or dislike?