The Temple of Books

Feeling somewhat remorseful at having taken a pop at the British Library building last week, I took the opportunity to visit it today. Approaching through the lychgate on Euston Rd, I crossed the courtyard and entered by the main doors.

The entrance hallway is arranged in a series of ascending platforms, some containing rows of web browsers where visitors can check the library catalogue before proceeding. Beyond the upper platform, a screen of hanging balconies partially occludes the Tabernacle containing the King’s Library. The Tabernacle itself is six-storey high box of wood and glass that penetrates the full height of the building. The books, leather-bound and ancient, are arranged with their spines outward so they can be viewed through the glass. They are softly but directly lit, somehow encouraging devotions to be whispered in a hushed tone.

I confess I was wrong; the communal areas were busy enough with staff, students and tourists like myself. Only the inner sancta, the reading rooms, seemed largely empty. So the place does retain a function. Not a practical one for the majority of visitors, but a symbolic one. The book, and I mean specifically the printed-on-paper variety, remains an object of devotion for our culture. And the British Library is the holiest site of the Book Cult.

Update: it seems the British Library itself agrees with my thesis, at least to some extent. If, as a tax-payer, I hadn’t had to pay for Britain’s poshest wi-fi hotspot, I’d still be laughing at the irony of it all.


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