I love the British Library

Recent posts may have created the impression that I’m a miserable bastard.  I feel the need to correct this, so my next two offerings will be in the Olympic spirit of relentless,  foolish, tearful optimism.

It may also appear that I’m a Luddite who’s hostile to social  or physical progress.  I do think the relentless juggernaut of the property development industry is a problem, but this is not to say that human beings aren’t capable of improving their built environment.  I’ve seen Notre Dame cathedral.  It always amazes me when cheer-leaders for the latest  ‘landmark’, ‘flagship’ or ‘iconic’ building talk as though they’ve just invented how to design and build things.

Buildings invite all kinds of emotions that are often transient – today’s architectural villains are tomorrow’s heroes and vice versa.  As Gerwshin put it ‘They all laughed at Rockefeller Centre, now they’re fighting to get in’.  One of the sources of wonder about the London Olympics seems to be that building its infrastructure hasn’t been a complete cock up, as has been the case with similar projects in the past.  One such was the British Library, opened in 1998 after fifteen years of construction during which it became a national joke with stories of multiple redesigns, budget problems, political interference, corruption and books falling off shelves.

I’m not passionate about books, learning and libraries in the way that some people are.  I didn’t really start reading books until after I’d left school and although I’ve been making up for lost time, I’d still rather go down the pub.  With reluctance, I started using the British Library a couple of years ago and have come to love it.  The design qualities and architectural aesthetics are a matter of taste.  I quite like its neo-Soviet, red-brick statementism and retort to the neo-Gothic St.Pancras station next door, but it’s what goes on inside that matters.  We have become so used to what is sometimes termed ‘interdictory space’, buildings and places that tell you what to do from the moment you enter them, usually reenforced by human and digital security.  You have to open your bag as you enter the British Library which is understandable (strangely, not as you leave), but that’s about it.  The reading rooms used to be a bastion of intellectual elitism and you still need a pass, but you don’t have to be Karl Marx to get one and if you do, millions of books become freely available like magic, delivered from far-away depositories by a network of underground railways driven by moles.  I made that bit up, but it almost seems possible.  People hang out at the Library.  Some have irritating, loud conversations about publishing, but others quietly eat sandwiches and drink from thermos flasks that they didn’t have to buy from the in-house concessions.  There are Jimmy Saville-like chairs where people plug in laptops and stay all day (no charge) and lots of nooks and crannies, toilets and free exhibitions.  In short, the British Library is a building of, by and for the people.  Compare and contrast with the Olympic Park.

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