On an average day, somewhere in the region of 4383 people visit the British Library at King’s Cross in London. The Library, first opened in 1998, has recently reorganised its public spaces, making more room for laptop-friendly desks and power points for mobile charging. Amidst the weary academics and PhD students, the café and restaurant now bustle with throngs of undergraduates and even school students, all wallowing in the inspiration of the bristling frisson of cultured intellectualism.
In the year 2068, a select few of these young people will return to the library, now older. As books are slowly released from conveyor belts on input of the correct pin code and seat number, they will perhaps wonder what became of the girl with ice-cream lilac streaked hair in her 1950s vintage plaid dresses who used to sit behind the counter, or those coloured slips of paper, slid between each book cover, usefully reminding them if the book belonged to the library or, instead, that elusive individual who went by the name of Boston Spa. From their individualised study pods, they will mutter inaudible songs in an attempt to conjure the feather touch of an arm on the desk next to theirs when plugging in a mobile phone. Underneath augmented reality glasses, a fine moisture will appear at the recollection of their younger selves, heads rested on desks, sleeping softly while dreaming of words yet written to a lullaby of soft white noise.
But not even the eldest ones will remember the reason for the small darkened square of glass, encased in brass, on the right-hand side of each desk, the faint outline of words behind the hard surface directing the reader to the issue desk.
If anyone asks these older ones, it will seem ludicrous to them that, once, a straw-haired woman, returning to the library after a period of ill-health, cried softly at her desk for the loss of the speaking of the small dark square. On the day this happened, the woman could feel the silent presence of the soft red light behind the glass which would illuminate the words when a book was ready for collection. She would cry again, later, silently, when the computer terminal told her the books had arrived, making several journeys across the floor before the status finally changed. It was difficult, on returning to her desk, not to turn automatically towards the square, to check as she had used to that the light had been turned off. On numerous occasions, having collected her books, she found herself absent-mindedly pressing the small brass cancel button next to the light.
The woman imagined that the ache she felt would be short-lived, so was surprised to find that on each subsequent visit it seemed to grow, pushing into her fingers and stretching itself outwards so that it became harder and harder for her to concentrate. She even found that she could no longer sit at her favourite desk in the Humanities Reading Room, the one on the end of the row, a little smaller than all the others, which pleased her because its irregular shape, altered to allow for the pillar which supported the ceiling, defeated the geometry of the other work spaces. On one particular day, she combined her visit to the British Library with a research trip to the library of the University of London at Senate House. She hoped to precede her research with a visit to the dining hall, but on finding that it had been replaced with a self-service café, she went directly to the fourth floor. She was pleased to find the journals room deserted, but less so when, on enquiring at the help desk as to the availability of the latest issues, she was told that these were stocked now in electronic format and could be accessed from the computer terminals in the research room. She dealt quite well with this further disappointment. It was only when leaving that she noticed that the two small wooden boxes in which one placed requests for stored material – one for books, the other for articles – were no longer there. ‘All stack service material can now be ordered online via the library catalogue’, read the sign behind the unattended counter.
On her subsequent visits to the British Library, the woman went straight to the Rare Books and Music Reading Room. It was there that she found herself disturbed by the attention of a youngish man around the same age as herself, whose eyes fell upon her at the moment her laptop, its speakers inadvertently not muted, broke the room’s stillness with a double chime. Having struggled that morning to get the last seat in the pencils-only section, in the row next to the laptops which, frankly, was a space he rather considered something to be avoided, the man directed his scrutiny towards her with a look not of anger but rather of gentle unease. Returning his gaze, the woman thought it was as if one was observing a slightly off-centre spirit level settled against the smooth plane of a newly plastered wall.
In challenging moments such as this one, the man closed his eyes and tried to imagine the reading room closing in around him, making the circular shape of the old library at the British Museum. As a schoolboy, his class had been taken to this place – what his teacher told them was the first British Library, the hushed voices of Lenin and Marx echoing up towards the domed ceiling. Here the paperness of paper seemed safe. Here, the hard click of keyboards could melt into the soft scratch of carbon on paper. More recently, the young man found himself going to this place more and more often: On visiting his local corner shop to find they no longer sold newspapers, on finding an invitation answered with an email, or when Christmas came and went without the arrival of a single card. But most of all it happened on those journeys home across town when he saw someone sit down, wearily, on the bus, and begin to read from their electronic book. In such moments, he would screw his eyes together tightly, so as to not only put himself into the museum library, but also scrawl words in bright pen on the books’ pages, inhale the dust from the book jackets, and run his fingers slowly over the worn leather spines. He liked to think of this as an imaginative post-humanist corruption of the idea of touching reading, a concept which he had come across only recently, on his first visit to the University of London library, when he consulted a copy of Cunningham’s excellent book on the subject. It hadn’t been read for more than ten years, and needed to be brought up from the basement, but it was no bother to him; the book arrived quickly.
Before her illness, when she moved more easily, the straw-haired woman would scan the desks and see other academics scuttling towards the counter, while she still waited for her light. Like a watched pot, she sometimes felt the small square was in collusion with some force against her or was itself possessed in the interests of surreptitious unravelling. Sometimes, the light never came on at all, and she would be forced to go up to the counter, only to find that her book had been available for hours. She just hated that light.