Monday, October 17, 2011

In The British Library

This is a part of the work I am doing on Learning environments. We looked at the British Library as a team, and I am tasked with writing about its service areas. I, as with other things I learn or think about, thought it appropriate to post the report here.
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I looked at the Service Areas of the British Library, the spaces that fill out the areas around the reading rooms. They hold cafes and galleries, a shop that sells books and touristy trinkets, as well as more functional areas, lockers, cloak rooms, and indeed, the reader registration area.

From the outside, the British Library building seems to represent a purpose: That of reading. Hence, despite passing it by many times, I would never dare enter it without the specific purpose of reading. I have used the adjacent Novotel and paid for the expensive coffee there for meeting people, but I would never cross the elaborate courtyard into the Library for such a trivial purpose. This reverence, preserved by the elaborate outside, seemed to contrast the more touristy feel of the reception, for example, the shop that sells books and mementos, rather than the dusty scholarly stuff I was almost expecting. The flashes of digital cameras, people posing around an outsized desk-like statue chained with a mini-globe, sparse seating arrangements and an all too recognizable hum give it a feel of a railway station.

In a way, that may be appropriate, if the function of this large open space is waiting. One can see an intricate structure of stairs and balconies, and a very visible column of books, the King’s Library, and a gallery, from the reception. It is as if one is looking into a sacred area, shrouded by some complexity and privileged access. This feeling is confirmed as one goes through the rituals of handing over the coats in the cloakroom or store other possessions in the lockers, which, alongside its strict instructions, have the feel of a secretive bank than a meeting place. Finally, the Readers’ Registration Area, with customary queues, confusing computer layouts, multiple layers of process and real interrogation desks, completes the process of initiation: One is stripped off the distractions of the outside and somewhat ready for heaviness of the inside.

The Open Cafes and galleries seem to maintain this feeling. In its quietness, rows of people gazing into their Macbooks, the severity of the reading rooms seemed to have overflowed outside. There are reading spaces everywhere: Standing chairs and wide top railings where we finally manage to keep our notebooks and write. This space, a floor up, seems a world removed from the reception, as if the invisible walls of the cloak room and the registration transformed everything.

Finally, an anomaly: As we walk into the Friends Room for a final debrief, the order of the atmosphere breaks down. Right inside the gut of the Library, here is a chaotic room, where people don’t seem to mind laughing or raising voices, or rearranging chairs and tables to convene talking groups. This was somewhat liberating from the very solitary feeling of even the social spaces.

Looking at this, British Library seemed to signify to me a slight confusion of what a Library meant to be: Inclusive or exclusive, solitary or communal, a place to preserve knowledge or to create, etc. May be, it is a continuum from the Kings Library to the Friends Room, segmenting various kinds of learners automatically and representing the full spectrum how people learn. Or, may be it is an unintended mix, a government building purposed to become a place to learn, a somewhat middle point in knowledge’s journey from British Museum to the Internet.

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