British Library Day Two: Building Tour and Welcome Team

24/06/13

I walked to the library today, and unlike my relaxing walk home yesterday, I was struck by asthma (or at least a tightening in the chest) about half-way through the walk, and was pretty tired by the time I arrived. I’m pretty determined to continue with the walking however, as it will be good for my fitness, and for my bank balance.

I had a tour of the building scheduled for 10.30 and met a group in the front entrance hall. At first they assumed Lynn and I were taking the tour I think, and when we explained my circumstances one of the ladies was interested in asking a few questions about my study, and how long I was in London for. This continued to be a popular question, with one of the tour members who joined us a bit later asking the same thing.

I found it extremely interesting to note just how young the library is, as it stands now. Up until the late 1960s or so it had been a part of the British Museum, simply called the British Museum Library, and as such had existed since 1753. It was only after the British Library Act was passed in 1972 that the library was bought into independent operation the following year.

The building itself took 14 years to complete, and after government cuts in Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister did not end up being completed to level that the architect had originally planned, with a whole third stage of development having to be discarded or worked into current plans where able. As such, the library was supposed to have an entire extra section built onto the back which was never constructed. Now the land originally intended for that space has been sold off so there is no chance for the library building to continue growing.

During the tour we were also shown some behind the scenes things which I already knew from my brief introduction the day before, like the registration room and the document delivery system. We were shown some of the artwork around the library, as well as the only item from the King George collection not to have ever been stored in the King’s Tower. This was an enormous atlas, taller than I am, standing. We were allowed to take photos, but alas I had not bought my camera, under the assumption that it was a no-no. Indeed there were only a few places photos were allowed, so maybe I’ll go back later and do it. On a similar note, I also saw my first squirrel today in someone’s front yard – but again with no camera. Oh, and the tour guide kept calling me her colleague, which took me off guard but was kind of special.

During lunch I tried to arrange tickets for something to do on one of my weekends, but alas I needed more information than I had at the time. So, back to work it was.

After lunch, I researched a little for my presentation, but unimpressed with the slowness of the system in areas I needed, I didn’t get much done and it was soon time for me to shadow with the welcome team. I started with half an hour at the information desk, and did not have an observer badge, so was approached quite a number of times. I’m unsure whether this is because I looked less busy (sorting into piles visitor passes that the other two workers (Dee and Kevin) were printing and preparing) or because I just looked friendly. Probably a mixture of both, as I do tend to get approached in the street as well – I just look helpful I guess.

Most of these queries I couldn’t answer, and two which I attempted, I got wrong. These two were a query about picking up photos (which I assumed meant the patron needed redirecting to a reading room as I didn’t know they could order copies of prints through the image library) and the second was my getting the date wrong for when the building was erected. Luckily these were easily sorted out by Kevin, and so were the other queries I fielded to the two: what happens with legal deposit (apparently not uncommon for people not to understand, and to come to the front desk – interestingly, there is a constant 6 month backlog of legal deposit to be processed); what time the library was closing; where the cloak-room was.

I did manage to direct a few people to the reader registration, to the toilet, and in one case to the treasures room as they were looking for a Jane Austen first edition, and seemed not to have a reader’s pass. The treasures room didn’t have a completed manuscript, but does have a notebook of hers on display and one of her portable writing desks.

Then it was time for me to shadow the reader’s registration people.

Reader requirements have relaxed somewhat in current years; however they still need a valid proof of address, valid and separate proof of signature, and examples of works needed from the library complete with shelf marks. Some applicants had to be turned away having not met the requirements while I was shadowing, but on the whole they were ok about it. I was told this is not always the case however, and it can get pretty fraught.

While I was there, a translator had to be called about one of the readers. He could speak English, but the proof of address he had provided was in Japanese, and needed to be verified as valid by someone who could read the language before his pass could be issued. Despite these stringent checks, talk had been made about making the reader restrictions are tighter again, after complaints from prestigious members about the lack of space or wait for service when school exams are nearing and students flock to the library.

At about 4 o’clock they released me and I headed off to debrief with Lynn before leaving. The library is open until 8 pm on Tuesdays, but luckily no-one expected me to put in a ten hour day.

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