Thursday, February 01, 2007

British Library 0, London Library 1

My hope of looking at some interesting 1920s correspondence in the British Library yesterday was foiled because its staff were on strike. "Librarians on strike", as you probably are thinking, sounds rather stronger than it was. No braziers, yells of "Scab", and only a handful of rather forlorn staff holding limp placards. But it was a right pain.

So I went instead to the London Library in St James's Square. There you pay £180 for a year's membership, but it is possible to borrow books, and you get access to the shelves themselves, where the books are ordered by subject. So although you might be after one particular book, it could be that it's the volumes either side that catch your eye. It is an amazing place, and the fee is worth every penny. And so far, I have never seen the staff go on strike.

It also made me think harder about a piece in the Daily Telegraph by Sam Leith on Monday. Leith commented on the possibility that a funding shortage at the British Library might force it to charge for entry, shorten its opening hours, or reduce its collection. On one point, I agree with Leith. Cutting the collection would be to undermine the library's essential purpose: to hold a copy of every book published in Britain, and more besides. And I'd rather not see the opening hours shortened: for people like me, who want to do research after a day in the office, the library shuts too early already. Which leaves charging. And that, on yesterday's experience, doesn't bother me too much.

The best bit about Leith's piece is his comment that the British Library's "on-site catering, like its wireless internet access" is "extortionately priced and only intermittently satisfactory..." Last time I visited the library I could have sworn that the catering is run by the famous cook, Prue Leith. Who is Sam's aunt.

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