Remember going to the library?
I miss the reading rooms most—the busy hush of reading and 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 in Bloomsbury in London to its own new building in St. Pancras a half mile to the north. The old place had become too small, overrun—mostly by American academics, or would-be academics like me—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 found all the desks occupied, so had to perch on a lower step of one of the rolling ladders that ascended to the high bookshelves.
The main reading room of the “new” British Library, officially opened by the Queen in 1998 and gradually reopening now after being shut during the pandemic, is vast and light, though not too bright. The lofty allusion to dimness suggests both preservation underway and monkish devotion to a higher purpose. The stations are richly appointed in oak, brass, and green pigskin: not unlike the carrels in the old library. The atmosphere is studious, the sightlines long. The space encourages both decorum and distraction. There are long tables with double desks facing each, conducive to flirting for those so inclined.
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 presented Chinese terracotta soldiers—a 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 Marx, and Vladimir Lenin, among many others.
Madame Tussaud’s is only a half-an-hour walk from the British Museum, and I’ve often thought that their sculptors (or AI lasers) should be commissioned to fashion 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 ongoing exhibition would recreate given 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 blotches 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. Dickens is nearby.
These nostalgic thoughts inevitably mingle with musings about the fate of reading rooms in the Digital Age.
Take 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 resemble 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. The space 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. However modernist in design and décor, it was nonetheless 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 forum of ideas and argument like the coffee houses of Johnson and Boswell and European Enlightenment.
The laptop had long replaced the notebook. Undoubtedly, more texts and emails were—and will be— sent, more YouTube videos watched inside this library than notes taken on history, literature, and science. All cling to their security blankets—the cell phone.
Those students wishing to work in the presence of others in a larger space must now go to the basement, formerly the Cold War fall-out shelter and still about as welcoming. The great encyclopedic works of the past are nearby, but shelved so that their spines do not shine. Instead, these books are hidden from view in their metal ranges as if ashamed by their diminished standing.
Almost all the students seated here are plugged in and/or podded up, their gazes ping-ponging between the small screens continually jumping into their palms and their somewhat larger screens on their laptops or tablets. 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. In tirelessly extracting the DM from Dumb, they pursue an effective regimen of mental anti-fitness.
Hardly energized socially by all this connectivity, I sometimes retreated to the stacks. On every landing in the stairwell someone would be on their device. They used to talk on their phones. You’d hear pleas for a ride to New York City; Craig’s List haggling; queries about the weather in Montreal; “when did you lose interest in me?” Now that chatter is conducted, almost silently, with the thumbs.
In my first year of college, I attended a lecture on the Black Death by the eminent medieval historian David Herlihy, delivered as always by him without notes and with his hands clasped behind his back. In the midst of his remarks, that ranged from the historiographical to the epidemiological to the social, he slipped in a rare personal remark about the strangeness of living one’s life amongst a population that doesn’t age.
Nearly forty years on and having had little non-virtual contact with students for many months, I see even more clearly what he meant. For those who spend their lives on one, a campus is like the fountain of youth but without the regenerative effects: you get older, but the students do not.
When, assuming the virus cooperates, students come streaming back to the libraries next fall, I’ll be ready for rejuvenating miracles, ready to be amazed at how the pent-up desire for communal learning, sounding conversation, and the shared silence over books has been magically rekindled.