Passion and PhDs under the dome

November 21, 1997

Only one person I know claims to have "made out" in the Reading Room of the British Library. He, as the phrase suggests, was an American. As I sit in the rather empty but characteristically noisy reading room in its last week, the shelves of the upper galleries already emptied, a lot of memories like this come flooding back.

A million dates have been made at the indices, an infinite number of fleeting eye-contact courtships engaged in. The shape and size of the room, especially away from the ever more crowded rows reserved for portable computer users, were always good for meeting people. The shape of the desks and the intricate but largely useless shelves on the desk were good for hiding when you did not want to meet people. Indeed, by taking a desk like G7 and piling your 12 volumes on your lefthand side, the Reading Room became the perfect place to sleep off a hangover.

The friends I made while writing my PhD here are now scattered around the world, but for a while the Reading Room was our club in central London, the steps outside as important - at least while I smoked - as the desks inside. Amid the socialising, gossiping and arguing, a remarkable amount of work got done. There was something in the air of the great dome that made you think, despite the constant noise. It was as though the collective genius in the air was helping you. The two ideas and two puns in my PhD came at this desk, G7.

After I began teaching the Reading Room played a different role. So much of the time and physical environment of academia is commonplace, banal and impoverished, working in the reading room always made me feel more like a scholar and less like a very expert photocopier. The new library will have its own subterranean life and ethos, it will make its own history, but something precious and irreplaceable is dying this week. As a culture we are very careful of our heritage in terms of artefacts and buildings, but what of experiences? It is, I know, reactionary, even Luddite, but I wish that the feel and smell and shape of working in the reading room could be retained. It should be a grade one-listed life experience that cannot be demolished, no matter how good the technical case. As I leave I realise that it will take a lot to get me into the Euston Road. How do you join the London Library?

Brian Brivati is reader in history, Kingston University.

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