British Library : where are the books?
When I first obtained a British Library tickets decades ago – while researching at the University of York – to analyse manuscripts in different Middle English dialects of Richard Maidstone’s Seven Penitential Psalms my usually deflating father was impressed. He would not be allowed a ticket, he said, as he didn’t have my qualifications – it was a privilege that I had apparently earned. Certainly in those days it was seen as a library of “last resort” that would definitely have obscure works but one was obliged to look at less prestigious places first before applying. But times change.
While researching for the general introduction to the Routledge Handbook on Animal-Human History that I am editing with Philip Howell I tried to order in the British Library a book on animals in the C19th published by Routledge in January 2015 costing £90.It was not there. When I complained I was told that the Universities of Aberdeen, Oxford and Sheffield had copies.(Not terribly helpful if you live on the south coast of England. And university libraries are not obliged to stock all books in copyright. ) Allegedly it had not been deposited – and the library was not going to pursue this. I was also told “to consider purchasing a copy.” I have not “chosen” to do this. I have neither the funds nor the inclination: I expect the national legal deposit library to fulfil its statutory obligations. (But then I also think that other state institutions like the NHS should be financially maintained to deliver a proper service.)
Yes the British Library provides free wi fi for the hundreds of young people who gather outside the reading room doors recreating a sleazy internet caff . And yes there are restaurants if you can find a seat amongst the teenagers hanging out there.But the British Library was not created primarily to be a warm community centre but a library. And as my C 14th Carmelite friar confessor of John of Gaunt would have known, liber still means book and we still need them in libraries- both locally and nationally.