Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

British Library: A Murky Quagmire of Impossibilities

September 6, 2010 · 4 Comments

I went to the British Library today to get a library card and begin research. In the two hours I spent there I acutely encountered  an English phenomenon that Professor Qualls has described. I suppose I would call it ‘the run around.’ It is a fairly backwards system in which nothing can be accessed directly or simplistically acquired. At every turn this system required another step or was made more complicated or forbade me from receiving normal library benefits. The miserable experience began when  I tried to get a library card. I had a passport sized photo and the letter from the University of East Anglia so one would think this process would be simple. And one would be wrong.
First, I had to fill out a list of the books that I would be getting out. Let’s, you and I, reader and myself, take a moment to consider this task. Here I am, setting foot in this library for the first time. I plan on searching through the databases and selection of books to find something worthwhile for research. However, before I have done so, I am obligated to say which books I will be using. While clearly I can just fudge a few names onto the page and say these are the ones I’ll be using, the idea behind the request seems to only serve as an impediment to a process that should be quite simple.
So I fudge the titles, finally get the card after a solid half hour of pure, cool, wasted life and head over to the Humanities section. From there, I’m redirected down to a bag section where I wait in a queue in order to put my backpack in a closet. Why this section was not outside the area I was not allowed into with it remains a mystery. Moving on, I was told that certain books were being kept in Yorkshire and for that reason are only available to be ordered for forty-hours later, which is perfectly understandable. However, when I ordered my books not marked as being kept in Yorkshire, I received a figurative swift kick in the pants. To receive any book from anywhere in the library takes seventy minutes. For effect, I’ll repeat that. Seventy minutes. Yes, that is for any book. Seventy minutes.
Why couldn’t I go up directly to someone working at the Library, ask them where the book was, and retrieve it in, say, 15 minutes? Perhaps because that would be too easy and too simple. Perhaps because the Brits are afraid of direct contact. Or perhaps it is because they take a sick pleasure in watching people go up and down escalators getting progressively more cranky and hungry! But I put that behind me, and said, well, I’ll just wait the seventy minutes and take my requested book out and look at it tonight after dinner, because I was preposterously famished at this point, as I hadn’t anticipated the hundred (70+30) minute process I would encounter before even looking at my first source. At this point, The British Library hit me one final time, delivering a knockout blow. I was informed that you cannot check books out. That’s not a typo nor an exaggeration, folks, you really can’t. I’m not just yankin’ the ol’ chain there. So, in a huff, I left, vowing never to return.

Until tomorrow when my books arrive.

Categories: 2010 Michael

4 responses so far ↓

  •   Karl // Sep 7th 2010 at 11:47

    While I won’t defend the bureaucratic run around (one of the few things I detest about living here), the wait time is actually reasonable if you think about it. This isn’t your neighborhood library. It is one of the largest libraries in the world. It takes time to locate and transport items to the reader from the shelves. The Library of Congress has wait times of approximately 2 hours, as a point of reference.
    FYI: I need your name in the category if you want credit for the post.

  •   bowmanc // Sep 7th 2010 at 18:21

    Well, now that I’m fully motivated to hit the library up asap, I do appreciate the heads up for those of us who still need to get the card. Did you notice any que structures/jumpers? We had quite a terrible que jump experience the other day, and the offender didn’t even correct herself. How friendly were the people? Were they a bit cold and reserved or kind and amicable?

  •   mikey // Sep 9th 2010 at 08:44

    Haha, Chris the staff was alternately friendly and distant and cold. The queues were structured fine.

  •   guya // Sep 9th 2010 at 17:16

    Just a suggestion in case anyone missed it: I was told while at the Library that we can preorder books online for when we arrive… has anyone tried this yet?

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