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Reading Room Blues

Ithaca, New York.

I’ve always loved the reading rooms of great libraries: the busy hush of research underway; the reluctance of old pages being turned; the furtive glances at the mysterious materials laid out on the desk alongside and at the person who’s ordered them; the fleeting eye contact made over the top of tomes …

Most illustrious of them all was the Round Reading Room of the British Library built in the 1850s in the courtyard of the British Museum. I logged many hours there before it closed in 1997 when the library moved from the museum to its own new building in St. Pancras in London. Admittedly the old place was overrun—mostly with Americans academics it seemed—when I frequented it in the 1990s.

It was already crowded in the nineteenth century. When working on his monumental history of the French Revolution, Thomas Carlyle often had to perch on the step of one of the rolling ladders leading to the high bookshelves since all the desks were occupied.

The main reading room of the new British Library is vast and quite light, though never too bright, the lofty dimness of the place suggesting both preservation underway and monkish devotion to a higher purpose. The stations are richly appointed in oak, brass, and green pigskin. The atmosphere is studious, the sight-lines long. The space encourages both decorum and distraction. There are long tables with double desks facing each, conducive to flirting for those so inclined—that is to say almost everyone.

However grand and spacious the new British Library main reading room is, I thought it a scandal that the books were finally removed from the British Museum in 2007, when the venerable rotunda was transformed into an exhibition space, the first show presenting Chinese terracotta soldiers—a rather snarky comment perhaps about the legions of researchers who themselves had soldiered there during the century-and-a-half of the Round Reading Room’s glory. The list includes George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Wolf, Mahatma Gandhi, Karl Max, and Lenin among many others.

I’ve always thought that Madame Tussaud’s, only a half-an-hour walk away from the British Museum, should have been called upon to make wax figures of the Reading Room’s luminaries. These could be placed at their desks consulting the actual materials from the collection that they had used in their work. The exhibition would recreate actual days in the library’s past, for example April 12th, 1865, and would change periodically. How fascinating it would be to peer over the shoulder of the uncannily life-like wax figure of Karl Marx with his fountain pen, ink spots in his beard, working at his notebook for Das Kapital, the Acts of Parliament stacked around him. To his left sits Darwin, to his right Thackeray.

These nostalgic thoughts inevitably mingle with musings about the fate of reading rooms when modes of reading and research are radically and swiftly changing.

Take for example, the main library at Cornell University, donated by alumnus John Olin, whose bust can be consulted near the building’s entrance The plinth on which the head is placed praises Olin as an Industrialist, Philanthropist, and lastly, as an Environmentalist. Olin accumulated his fortune in munitions and caustic chemicals, hardly the most environmentally friendly of pursuits. The library named in his honor was finished in 1961 and architecturally embodies its Age. The flat, sober façade scored with rows of narrow, vertically-oriented rectangular windows resembles nothing so much as an IBM punch card. The message this building conveys is that research is about information not imagination.

The library’s reading room was originally on the ground floor and looked out onto the arts quad: it was not grand; low-slung rather than lofty. The message of the building’s interior was also clear: the purpose of education was to prepare students for the cubicles of the technological age. But however modernist in design and décor, it was unambiguously a reading room: there were tables and books and journals and even the occasional gust of good old-fashioned silence.

Not so many years after the British Library emigrated from the Round Reading Room, Olin Library converted its reading room to a café. The transformed space was neither studious nor a lively place of ideas and argument like the coffee houses of Johnson and Boswell and European Enlightenment.

The laptop had long replaced the notebook, and the quiet clatter of keys evoked for me hammering Nibelungen in some subterranean smithy forging all that tuition gold into the powerful magic of knowledge. Undoubtedly, more emails are sent and YouTube videos watched inside this library than notes taken on history, literature, and science. That more–clingy companion, the cell phone is in superabundance. More texting seems to go in the café than conversing.

Those students wishing to work in a larger space in the presence of others must now go to the basement, formerly the Cold War fall-out shelter and still about as welcoming as one. The great reference works of the past, including reprints of the encyclopedic projects of the enlightenment, are nearby, but shelved so that their spines do not shine on the tables set out in the depressing room. These books are hidden from view in their metal ranges as if ashamed at their diminished standing.

Almost all the students seated here are plugged into their iPhones, their gazes ping-ponging between the small screen held in their palm and the somewhat larger one on their laptop. With the same rhythm as they work on their abs, the patrons of this underground studio do interval training on their attention spans: twenty seconds on; a slug of Frappuccino; respond to an incoming text and then another; repeat.

There is the ethereal hum of music emitted by several sets of nearby ear buds.

Hardly energized by this electronic vibe, you retreat to the stacks. On every landing in the stairwell someone is talking on a cellphone—a ride to New York City; a mattress on Craig’s List; the weather in Shanghai; “when did you lose interest in me?”

You are from another planet. Yours has been invaded by strange beings.

In the midst of a brilliantly conceived and delivered lecture on the Black Death, done as always without notes and with his hands clasped behind his back, the late medieval historian David Herlihy slipped in a remark about the strangeness of living one’s life amongst a population that doesn’t age. It’s as if one is cavorting in the fountain of youth but not benefitting from its regenerative effects: spending one’s life on a college campus, you get older but the students do not.

Times change, and so they should, but if the reading room both in form and practice is increasingly a thing of the past, can the university be far behind?