Saturday, 31 January 2009

British Library

The end of a comically awful week, leavened by a few highpoints. It's been a week in which I have missed every train, tube or bus I've tried to get on by five to ten seconds - consistently - been crapped on by a pigeon, and lost or broken various essentials, including my phone and glasses. Mercury must be retrograde.

Aside from having to pay an enormous bill unexpectedly - over half my monthly salary - the chief lowlight of the week has been my encounter with our national treasure house of accumulated wisdom, The British Library.

I went down from Cambridge to King's Cross on Tuesday, after teaching Scéla Muicce Meic Dathó in the morning, and presented myself at Reader Registration with a bill and my passport. The bill was a formal statement of my college account at 'Porterhouse', clearly showing that I was a Fellow of the college, resident therein, with my address and college phone number clearly stated on official paper. (As I live in, I don't have any recent utility bills.)

I queued up, and eventually came face to face with the greasy man on the front desk. As so often with officials of any stripe, he used the sing-song, MIS-stressed proNUNCiations characteristic of British Rail platform announcements, and presided over the queuing would-be readers with obvious distaste, as though they were an scraggly assemblage of Margate dole-scammers and junkies.

- [sizing me up] 'And why do you want to use the British Library?'
- 'Well, um, I'm an academic researcher at Cambridge, and there's a particular 16th century Welsh MS held here that I need to examine to complete a book I'm writing.'
- [sceptical look and pitying smile] 'And have you checked in the catalogue that we DO actually have that particular MS, here at the British Library?'

At this point I wish I'd said something like: 'No. I believe it's actually held in the enfer of the Bibliothèque nationale, but I simply assumed that you had a dear little choo-choo train that goes under the Channel and which would bring it straight to my desk.'

What I actually said was, 'Yes. Of course I did', in a puzzled tone, because the idea that a professional scholar (as my documentation clearly showed me to be) might just troll down to ask for an unusual manuscript simply on the off-chance that the BL would have a copy was so bizarre.

Greasy man then huffed a bit, glanced at my papers, and announced in a condescending tone that they were unacceptable, because I had brought an invoice rather than a bill, and I was kicked to the kerb. Silently screaming, I left, counted to fifty, then queued up again to ask whether bank-statements were acceptable. I really, really needed to see that MS that day.

I reached the front of the queue again, and saw a different official. Greasy bald man saw me speaking to said official and hollered over the room to his colleague: 'I've already said no to that one.' No, print-offs from a branch were not acceptable.

Duly depersonalised in this fashion ('that one'), I left the BL and remonstrated down the phone with various friends whilst standing in the piazza. ('Piazza can be slippery', announced signs. 'Can she?', I thought. 'Not half so slippery as her colleagues.')

I then went up to Oxford and delivered a not very good seminar to the postgrads the next day, which was embarrassing as I'd been asked to speak by my former supervisor. Having to spin the material I'd planned to use up in half an hour to an hour's length was unpleasant, and I made at least one glaring translation error because I was tired and annoyed.

And, reader, can you guess the coda to this story?

Yesterday, I went back to the BL. I took bank-statements, but also exactly the same documents that I had brought along on Tuesday. The greasy jobsworth was not there, and the bank-statements proved unnecessary, as I had suspected they would be. After I had demonstrated that I was a research fellow at Cambridge, with proof of address and academic status, and with ID, I was set up within ten minutes with a three year renewable pass and told I could order up my precious MS as soon as I liked.

By which time, of course, it was too late.


Anonymous said...

Amazing story. In 1995, when of course it was still in Bloomsbury, I went in, asked to see Dee's Of Famous and Rich Discoveries and De Speculis Comburentibus, and they brought them to me. I don't remember what I had to show, but I was a professor at a tiny transatlantic college. Apparently I was very lucky. Rodger Cunningham

Pitch313 said...

Maybe I'm using the wrong dictionaries, but "bill" and "invoice" mean virtually the same so far as I can tell.

I am reminded that the proper function of librarians (and such) is to prevent any and all contact between library resources and users of those resources.

I am also reminded of a Henry Miller piece " Via Dieppe Newhaven" and personal encounters with various cutoms, immigration, police, and corporate functionaries.

tenthmedieval said...

That's faintly appalling; I've only had good interactions with the BL staff except over photocopying, though they are sometimes clueless. Guiding the more mature members of staff through their own computer catalogues has been a repeated joy... But this is far beyond the pale of my experience there, and that includes getting a reader pass renewed at very short notice. I wonder if it was just being London rather than Cambridge? But mainly I suspect said greasy jobsworth needs firing.

I hope things improve in short order, anyway!

dayreturn said...

I've decided to not bother with using the BL collection after abandoning a doctoral program. I am happy to go fetch my friend esmerelda there for lunch occasionally and the odd lecture or interview like this one:

Nice list of scents!


Bo said...

Thanks for your comment, James! Yes, the whole place is a pain.

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