Wednesday, May 13, 2015

memories of a lost library

I am office-less at the moment, and like many, my writing desks are those of libraries, cafes and dining rooms. A friend told me recently of a library in London where the litterati write: The London Library. I wondered of course, did this leathered, soft-lighted place have pneumatic tubes? I can't find any evidence yet but my search did lead me to find tubes in another library favoured by London writers such as Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf and H.G. Wells: The British Library Reading Room.

Orwell and Wells? Could these library tubes have inspired their use in science fiction classics such as 1984?

Possibly. Here are some reflections from some other writers who been inspired by the library's tubes:

"The truth is, of course, that time has invaded this perfect space. Each year adds five miles of books and magazines to the library's London shelves, while, at the other end of the scale of time, another five miles disintegrate, the volumes sometimes opening in blizzards of paper flakes, brown and brittle as autumn leaves. Mice haunt the iron bookstacks, where the detritus of centuries is arranged in an order comprehensible only to the librarians. Marcus Aurelius sits among books of etiquette and children's annuals, and laden trolleys are heaved into rumbling paternosters - a superhighway of Lamson pneumatic tubes, brawn and low pay, corrupting in the noxious Bloomsbury air. From her raised seat at the exact centre of the room, Nina Evans, the reading-room superintendent, is trying to disguise from readers the panic of two pigeons, trapped in the lantern of the dome". (James Buchan, The Independent, 24 July 1994).

"When I’m in London I spend a lot of my time in the hushed yet humming, hive-like halls of the British Library. I’ve had a Readers Pass almost 20 years now. I first began using the BL’s Reading Rooms at Bloomsbury before the Library moved to St Pancras in the late 1990s. In those days, when the BL still preserved its lingering air of Victorian decay, Readers used to request books by filling out a little chit of carbon-triplicate paper, which would then require posting through a little wooden window in the centre of the Round Reading Room. The first time I ever did this, I hesitated a moment, hoping I’d filled in my request slip correctly, but before I could reconsider a disembodied hand shot out of the little hole and snatched it from my startled grasp. The slip was then placed into a small cylindrical capsule and promptly whisked off around a pneumatic tube transport system into the unfathomable depths of the old library (the tubes used to whisper quietly like ghosts). Eventually your book would arrive at your desk, delivered by the stately progress of a rickety old trolley, with one of those carbons tucked between the leaves." (Tim Chamberlain, Eccentric Parabola, 21 July 2012)

As Chamberlain recalls, in 1997 the Reading Room in the British Museum underwent rennovation. In the process the tubes disappeared, along with the heavy dusty card catalogues. The space modernised, including electrical outlets at each desk and telephone jacks for later connection to the internet. The New York Times reported that "instead of the old pneumatic-tube system by which slips of paper ordering books were sent to attendants in the stacks, books will be ordered using an automatic system run by computer, and a light will go on at the desk of the person requesting the books when the order is ready."

The library function of this space actually moved to the British Library's then new St Pancras site. The Reading Room opened three years later, the tubes no longer creating a superhighway into the unfathomable depths below the museum, yet its many other splendors now open to the public to enjoy.

Image: Book stacks in the British Museum Reading Room, 1905. Wikipedia: "Biblioteksbyggnader, Bokmagasin bredvid läsesalen i British museum, Nordisk familjebok" by Nordisk familjebok - Nordisk familjebok (1905), vol.3, p.296. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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