Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"It's Full Of What Seems To Be Schoolgirls Giggling."

The British Library Reading Room has relaxed its standards, causing howls of outrage among the "serious" authors who try to work there.

When Karl Marx created the tenets of Marxism in the British Library’s Reading Room and Charles Dickens worked at one of its desks, they did not have to endure queues, a lack of chairs and tables, and rooms closed by crowd control.

Two years after one of the world’s greatest libraries opened its doors to undergraduates and anyone working on research, high-profile writers and academics say that the struggle to find a desk is now intolerable. Library directors stand accused of increasing visitor numbers to boost funds and performance bonuses.

Although there are 1,480 seats in the library, the author Christopher Hawtree was last week forced to perch on a windowsill while the historians Lady Antonia Fraser and Claire Tomalin have swapped horror stories of interminable queues. Library users complain that the line to enter the new building in St Pancras, central London, has recently been extending across its enormous courtyard.

Speaking to The Times yesterday, Lady Antonia said: “I had to queue for 20 minutes to get in, in freezing weather. Then I queued to leave my coat for 20 minutes [at the compulsory check-in]. Then half an hour to get my books and another 15 minutes to get my coat. I’m told it’s due to students having access now. Why can’t they go to their university libraries?”

Ms Tomalin described the crowds as intolerable: “It’s full of what seem to be schoolgirls giggling. I heard one saying, ‘I’ve got to write about Islam. Can I have your notes?’ It’s what you expect to hear in a school.”

Of the long queues she said: “It is absurd. It’s access gone mad. Access has many good points, but making the British Library, which was for specialist readers, into something for general readers seems to me terrible.”

The historian Tristram Hunt said that it was a scandal that it was impossible to get a seat after 11am when students were there. Many people travelling from outside London complain that they cannot get to the buidling any earlier. “Students come in to revise rather than to use the books,” he said. “It’s a ‘groovy place’ to meet for a frappuccino. It’s noisy and it’s undermining both the British Library’s function, as books take longer to get, and the scholarly atmosphere.”

The British Library does not deny that there is overcrowding. It has even produced leaflets listing other recommended libraries. But Phil Spence, its director of operations and services, said: “There are currently no plans to restrict the numbers of users.”

He confirmed that the library’s directors received performance bonuses depending on the number of visits.

Ha! So that's the reason that they let the proles in!

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