In Praise of the British Library


When I’m in London I often work at the British Library. I pretend it is my club and arrange to meet people there for lunch or coffee or afternoon tea.  If they’re unfamiliar with its layout, I wait for them just inside the front doors and sit on this brass bench:


Although it makes for a chilly bottom, there is something irresistible for me about sitting inside a book.  Life imitating art.  Living my own metaphor.

 I did much of the research for my latest novel The Fourth Shore at the British Library. Unlike other libraries, you cannot take the books out. You have to read them in situ, which concentrates the mind.  Before you can enter one of the reading rooms you have to demonstrate a legitimate research interest and become a registered library user. You are free to sit and work in the public areas of the library and many people do, hundreds of places filled daily.  But there is something about showing your pass and being granted access to a reading room – having divested yourself in advance of all extraneous possessions, handbags, umbrellas and pocket contents stowed in a locker, laptop and pencil clearly displayed in one of the clear plastic bags provided – something that says I’m not here to muck about. I am here to work.

 The first time I attempted to enter one of the reading rooms, I was turned away. My credentials were bonafide, my transparent bag of necessaries regulation issue, no sneaky pen was hidden about my person, but I had not quite managed to meet all of the requirements. I was still wearing my coat and outdoor apparel is not not allowed in the reading rooms, lest a collection item be hidden amongst its folds. When I presented myself again after a trip to the cloakroom, chastened and coatless, the guardian at the door said, ‘If Madam is cold,we can provide a shawl,’  and then he ushered me in.

The whole huge, high-ceilinged room is full of other people also there to work and to find out more about whatever it is that interests them. Some have requested so many volumes that these have to be wheeled to their desks on trolleys. It is as if their brains have expanded just by being there and they are able to consult a hundred books at once.

 I knew before I started using the service that there were millions of books available in the British Library, but still I was stunned to discover that I could access esoteric Italian titles from a hundred years ago, like this one – a memoir by an Italian pilot of the 1920s complete with the author’s own photographs taken from the air.


I understand that such a discovery would not set everyone’s heart aflutter, but it does mine.

So it is a very conducive place for me to study and explore ideas and and then, once an hour, I emerge from the hush of the reading room to stretch my legs and I roam. I go up and down stairs, in and out of lifts, along galleries.  I wander down to the basement to be endlessly entranced by a trompe l’oeil picture, Paradoxymoron, showing a set of library book stacks, which appear to move as the viewer's eyes move. I climb a side staircase to look at the portrait of Hilary Mantel at the top and be encouraged in my efforts by her calm presence.

There are many amazing facts and statistics about the British Library, including:

 ·      It is the largest public building built in the United Kingdom in the 20th century.

·       It goes deep – five of the fourteen floors are underground.

·      If you saw 5 items each day, it would take you over 80,000 years to see the whole of the collection.

·      Some books are kept up north. Robots fetch them for you and then send them on request by a daily shuttle service from Yorkshire.

The British Library is a sanctuary in the hectic heart of London.   It is more lovely inside than out. It hosts talks and exhibitions, is packed with maps, manuscripts, ancient documents, stamps and extraordinary wonders as well as books and still more books, a central tower of them inside a glass case, a shaft of books housing something called the King’s library.

I never have availed myself of the shawl service, but I love knowing it exists. It sums up something essential about working at the British Library: there are rules, they must be obeyed, but once you’re in, you’re royalty.  If needs be, you will be brought shawls.