The British Library: Ivory Tower?
By Fred Smith @
The British Library is overflowing with young, frappuccino-supping undergraduates more interested in checking Facebook and watching Netflix than carrying out ‘serious’ research. At least this is the impression one might take from reading an article in The Times newspaper last month. Several prominent academics, including former professor of Renaissance literature at the University of Leeds, David Lindley, have voiced concerns over the overcrowding of an institution they believe should be reserved for individuals with a genuine research interest – individuals who currently struggle to find a seat and face ever-increasing waiting times for books. They believe that the once-exclusive library has become a trendy meeting place for London’s students to socialise over a cup of coffee and take advantage of the free wi-fi.
There is undeniably some truth behind these claims. On my first visit to the British Library on a soggy Thursday morning in February this year, I was surprised to find a queue, over thirty minutes before opening time, outside the front entrance. Within an hour of the doors opening, the majority of seats were filled by students, a number of whom were indeed using Facebook (although procrastination is hardly a sin confined to the undergraduates). Since the British Library Reading Room was opened up to undergraduates and the wider public in 2004, this has apparently become a common occurrence, especially during the months of May and June when undergraduates flock to the site in order to revise for their exams.
Clearly this does pose problems for the dedicated researcher whose sources can be found exclusively in the British Library’s collections. However, historians are becoming increasingly aware of the need to make history, and the way history is written, more accessible and engaging to the general public. The demands of academics, including eminent historians, to limit accessibility to the BL is a potentially very damaging solution to the problem of overcrowding. Such demands appear to reiterate the elitist nature of academic research, quite literally closing the door to those without qualifications.
Most unsettling of all was the article’s headline – ‘Academics demand: We want our British Library back!’ Our British Library? Why should academics alone qualify for access to an institution which, at its foundation, was given a mandate to make ‘the manuscript and printed materials of all ages’ available ‘to anyone who wants to study them’?
Of course, the original founders probably didn’t envisage the fields of Facebook that carpet the reading room of today. However, allowing non-academics access to the spaces where history is studied is surely the first step to dispelling the old stereotype of historians as elitist hermits unable and unwilling to engage with an audience beyond the closed circle of academia. If we bar the public access from the spaces where history is researched and written, how can we ever argue for history’s place in public life?
 Lucy Holden, ‘Academics demand: We want our British Library Back’, The Times, 29 May 2015.
 Speech by Viscount Eccles to the House of Lords, 2 March 1971, quoted online at http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1971/mar/02/the-british-library.