Are you planning some historical research over the Summer? Will it include the British Library (BL), by any chance? It is certainly on my own ‘To Do’ list. The BL in central London has announced some improvement plans over the coming months, which may have implications for those readers who use the St. Pancras site during the vacation period.
According to information released by the BL, there will be some key improvements to the public spaces and services at St. Pancras. As well as the award of a new catering contract (hurrah!), there will also be an increase in the public space available for public eating and drinking on Floor 1 (double hurrah!), together with a new Members’ room created on Floor 2 to coincide with a new BL membership scheme.
In order to make these changes, the BL intends to relocate its own staff canteens from their current locations on Floors 1 and 2 to a new facility on Floor 3. This space is currently occupied by the Cotton Room and Friends Lounge and, consequently, these areas will close in late July and will no longer be available for visitors to use.
However, the BL appear confident that, as they put it, the ‘overall increase in and enhanced quality’ of the spaces offered within both the new public restaurant and Members’ room will represent a ‘significant improvement’ to the facilities available to all those using the building.
Lets hope this is indeed the case. Anybody who has used the BL for research or just to visit in recent times will know that the site can become extremely busy at peak periods, and the lunchtime hours in particular are very challenging for readers when it comes to finding space to sit and eat. And, frankly, apart from being notably expensive, in my estimation the BL’s catering services have proved to be under-staffed and inadequate at busy times, with a limited range of food choice, all of which can be very frustrating to regular readers. If you take your own food, such as sandwiches or drinks, it can be even more difficult to find somewhere simply to eat your lunch. A small army of people with lunch boxes can often be seen dotted around the few seats in the main hallway entrance area at such times.
There is always the outside Italian-style piazza area, of course, which is fine on a dry and warm day, but bleak and unrealistic on a wet and wind-swept one. And we have certainly had a few of the latter types of day in recent months!
In many ways, the BL has become something of a victim of its own success. More and more readers use the St. Pancras site now, and cuts in core funding by central government have meant that the BL have been forced to find ever more creative ways to make up for funding shortfalls, including lots more public events to draw in more visitors. That is perfectly understandable. I suspect, though, that the ‘space’ problem was exacerbated by the BL’s controversial policy to open up reader access to a much wider range of people, and a considerable amount of the public space tends to be ‘occupied’ by people who are not there to use the Reading Rooms but just to take advantage of the excellent wi-fi and internet access provided by the BL. Moreover, within the Reading Rooms themselves, I have noticed a growing trend in readers using the computer screens to simply watch comedy movies or music videos.
That is fine in one sense, and I am hardly in a position to judge whether this is genuine research or not, but I do find it quite distracting in other ways, and I find myself increasingly becoming a bit of a ‘reactionary’ on such matters! If you are sitting next to, or near, such a reader, a steady flow of ‘tinny’ sound spilling out of their headphones can be irritating; similarly, if you have moving images in the corner of your eye, or even intruding into your line of sight, it can impact on your concentration. And, as for the ‘gigglers’, why do they always sit next to me?!
O.K., I do sound like a grump. A nice cup of tea usually works wonders and calms me down. Indeed, it pains me to write these kinds of comments about a building, a service and an archive that I have come to love. I have spent many hours using the Reading Rooms, and the reader services in them are truly first-class most of the time, with very dedicated and friendly staff.
But, personally, I am certainly hoping that the BL’s proposed improvements to the catering and public space aspects of the site at St. Pancras will address some of my misgivings and appease me. Time will tell.
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University