Queuing for Knowledge and free Wi-Fi

The morning queue at the British Library. Photo: Gaby Mahlberg

The queues at the British Library are getting longer again. On this Tuesday morning just before 9.30 the line meanders across the forecourt right through to the gate on the Euston Road. Yet, not everyone understands quite what the fuss is about. A young man in a hoodie turns round to me in amazement and asks: “Is this a good library then?” – “The best”, I respond with a smile, wondering what else might have brought him here.

When I started coming to the Library for research some twenty years ago now, those using the library were mainly academics and other professionals as well as PhD students. Now, you are just as likely to run into undergraduates or what seems like an increasing number of people using the Library for meetings or as a kind of free co-working space with WiFi.

It is heartening to see a library so crowded, and that it is obviously considered a cool enough place to hang out in, even if you are not reading crumbling manuscripts or seventeenth-century pamphlets. But not all of the Library’s more traditional users are pleased with this development. 

Users in front of the King’s Library. Photo: British Library.

“It’s really problematic if someone is making a research trip from far afield and has items waiting in a certain room and then they can’t get in because it’s full of people looking at social media”, says music and cultural historian Alexandra Wilson on Twitter. Pre-pandemic, the Library was used by some 1.5 million people each year.

Yet, the reading rooms themselves do not seem the main attraction to the less traditional users, as there are still plenty of desks available inside the Rare Books & Music Room these days. The crowds go for the desks and work spaces on the floor outside the reading rooms and – somewhat more annoyingly – for the cafés, where it is hard these days to find a quiet spot to enjoy your overpriced coffee or sandwich.

There is plenty of space in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room these days. Photo: Gaby Mahlberg

“I don’t understand why they don’t work inside the reading room”, my friend says, as a student reluctantly moves over her laptop, papers and flask, so she can put down her library bag. But some users might not even have a reader’s pass, even though it is free of charge and available to everyone these days.

Some academics too like to take a break in the public areas though. “The light in the manuscript reading room is so dimmed I perpetually nod off… I need the brightness of the outside space to wake me up“, says early modern historian Liesbeth Corens on Twitter. In particular after two years of Corona restrictions and the isolation created by working from home, it might also be nice to be in a more lively place again.

The British Library itself certainly does not object to those who might mainly come for the free Wi-Fi. On the contrary. “The British Library’s spaces are open to everyone. In recent years, we have increased the number of tables and seating around our St Pancras building in order to create more dynamic and informal ways for visitors to use the Library“, the British Library says in a statement. 

View from the Euston Road entrance. Photo: British Library

The additional work spaces certainly also encourage more people to casually look at the public exhibitions or browse through the shops on site. But, most of all, the British Library is a much loved institution.

“Love and miss it”, says early modern historian Norah Carlin on Twitter. Like many academics, she used to go to the British Library for research, using the various reading rooms. But she also says it has always been a place to relax and meet up with friends in the different spaces, having coffee or lunch.

Many people have not been able to go during the pandemic, although the Library managed to keep its reading rooms open as much as possible and also made available many materials online. They were “fantastic throughout the pandemic”, early modern historian Angela McShane points out on Twitter. 

“I find that since they hugely increased desk spaces for work outside the reading rooms, it is far less busy inside them”, says McShane. Meanwhile, opening “this great library” to all also “demystified” it for “future researchers.” Her colleague Alan Marshall, in contrast, would rather see the casual café atmosphere removed to turn the BL “back into an actual National research library”. 

Those who are nostalgic for a more traditional research library, meanwhile, might be fighting a lost cause. The open workspace is proving so popular that the British Library for some time has been planning a 100,000 sq ft extension to “house state-of-the-art facilities for British Library learning, business and exhibition spaces, a new northern entrance to the Library and a new headquarters for the national institute for data science and artificial intelligence, The Alan Turing Institute.”

The extension is what the people want, argues the British Library. “Through our ambitious plans to expand our St Pancras site, we hope to respond to the changing needs of our users, creating formal and informal new spaces that are flexible and collaborative, including new cultural, learning and event spaces and enhanced facilities to support anyone starting or growing new businesses through our pioneering Business & IP Centre (BIPC)”, the statement reads. “The extension will connect our site more closely with the local community and provide exciting new public spaces for those living and working in St Pancras.” 

Panoramic view of the British Library site with St Pancras station in the background. Photo: Published under a Creative Commons license.

For this to happen, the British Library is planning to develop a 2.8 acre site north of the current Grade I listed building at St Pancras in collaboration with Stanhope plc and Mitsui Fudosan UK Ltd. Additional commercial space and offices will be built on the same site to finance the ambitious undertaking ‘at no extra cost to the taxpayer’.

Since the new venture was officially announced in 2019, meanwhile, it has not been without controversy. Not everyone likes the design for the new building, while the extension also requires the demolition of existing buildings, including the British Library Centre of Conservation designed by Long & Kentish. The Twentieth Century Society is one of the project’s main opponents.

If all goes to plan, however, construction work on the new extension could start as early as next year, with plans to complete the work and open the new facilities by 2029.

Maybe once the extension is open, there will no longer be a queue.

gma

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By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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