Remembering the Round Reading Room
For many generations of scholars working in the Humanities, the Round Reading Room of the British Library, for most of its life a subsidiary of the British Museum, was a kind of home. Rows of desks pointed inwards from the circular walls, to an inner circle where the catalogues were kept, in the form of hefty books one had to pull out from shelves by straps. One would fill in request slips, drop them down a slot, and sit back waiting for the books to be delivered to the desk one had nominated. Who could forget the rattle of the trolleys as books were delivered? But all too often often they did not come, and at the back of the slips was a long list of reasons for non-delivery, which included books having been destroyed by bombing during World War II. A summons to Book Delivery Enquires always portended bad news. But there was always a sense of purpose there, and working back late on a summer’s evening, when the light streamed through the glass of the central dome, one felt privileged to be in one of the world’s great libraries.
Far more interesting than the systems of the Library were the eccentrics who used to read there. One was an elderly lady named Betsy, who would turn up in the middle of a London winter wearing shorts and tennis shoes, with a copy of the Financial Times under her arm. She would order books on ecclesiastical history, and whenever she saw a picture of a pope would spit at it. Needless to say she was a great favourite of the staff.
The Library’s new quarters in St Pancras make work much more straightforward, and the cafeteria is immeasurably better. But will the scholars who work there be able to match the achievements of their predecessors at the old Library? And even the reputations of former greats are limited. A story was told of a function held early in the twentieth century to mark the retirement of the Library’s longest serving employee. The honorand was asked whether he remembered a reader by the name of Karl Marx. He thought for a moment and replied ‘Yes, there was a Mr Marx. He used to sit at the same desk every day. But one day we noticed that he hadn’t come in, and we never heard of him again.’