I was born in the UK and have just returned from a two week trip to see my family. I was very excited, when, at the end of my stay I was able to work in one night and two days in London before my flight left, bound for Singapore. It would offer me a chance to do a few ‘touristy’ things, but above all I felt it would offer an opportunity to have some personal time to contemplate my trip (my father is currently unwell) and do a little self reflection. All very profound (well what do you expect from a philosophy major haha).
Now, I don’t know about you, but for me when having profound thoughts about your life it helps with clarity if you are somewhere inspirational. So you can imagine my excitement when at the end of my trip I was able to work in a chance to visit the British library in London.
As a relatively new librarian, and being British born, it felt like a pilgrimage. I had never been before (I began my library career after I left the UK 10 years ago) but here I was, stood outside the Great British Library, and not only that, I had a notebook and pen to ponder my life for a few hours in one of the homes of British librarianship.
It may seem at first I was putting a lot of expectation on my visit, however the above paragraph really exercises my poetic license for writing this blog post. In reality I just wanted a desk and seat to write down a few ideas and think about my priorities before getting back to the everyday craziness in Australia, also known as ‘normal’ life.
As I entered the building I was struck by the large lobby, the very imposing multi storey central column housing some very impressive, and one would assume, important texts. There was a stage (nothing on at that time) and as I wondered the floors, there were also a couple of cafes, an exhibition and some reading rooms etc. What was also apparent was the great number of people sitting with laptops on their knees on bench style seating. They were sitting on the floor reading magazines. They were even outside! (This is somewhat more incredible when I explain it felt like -2c).
What was missing were desks. Desks and seating. Now don’t get me wrong, there are desks and seating in the British library, but there are woefully less spaces than were blatantly needed. There were reading rooms that seemed to have some space but there are particular rules for entering these rooms and you have to be a registered member. These are certainly not open for anyone to sit and ponder their life. Disappointed, I opted to leave rather than sit on the floor of the lobby.
Now I’m no architect, library designer or UX expect, but I am a patron. I was a person that couldn’t find a seat and I wasn’t alone. I understand that the British library has many visitors and there may never be enough seating however they design it, but this doesn’t excuse, in my eyes, the excessive lack of facilities to simply sit and work. Is this not a core aspect of our libraries anymore?
Well it would seem not as this same experience was somewhat mirrored at the national library in Australia (although the NLA had much more seating I still felt there wasn’t much space for the public to use). I felt in both of these national institutions that the space was being given over to cafes (and I understand revenue income here but I feel too much concession is made to this) and lobbies etc. at the expense of useable space. If our public libraries wasted space like this they would have all closed down a long time ago (although I guess most of the UK public libraries are closing down, but that’s beside the point).
Is it too much to ask to enter our national libraries, find a seat and write and think. Or to maybe write an assignment or blog post. Maybe just, God forbid, read a book!! It doesn’t have to be quiet. People could use laptops or notepads, it doesn’t matter.
I may have got this all wrong, but when I see people sat on the floor of the British library I hope that instead of solely pandering to the profit margins, complex exhibitions and entertainment, we may also make sure we don’t loose sight of the simple things that can be offered. Like a desk and chair.