The Library of Bedlam

Reader Logo by Anjali Joseph

I don’t like working in libraries, and so I leave it as a last resort. Perhaps that’s why I don’t like working in libraries. For one thing it involves concentration in a quantity that I find slightly painful. For another, there’s the febrile atmosphere. It’s very plain, in any given reading room or library, that there are two sorts of people: those who are gossiping with their friends/canoodling with their partners, and those who are doing Much More Work Than You. The latter are virtually grunting with effort, as they fill pages of notes, motor through journal articles, or frown over large tomes. They seem to be a bigger, slightly more grown-up version of the people who always sprang up like unsavoury fungi around me in exam halls at university. Like the first paper of my third-year finals (Tragedy, rather appositely), in which I spent almost the first two of three hours staring about me in a strange, out-of-body experience of despair. Within a few minutes, it seemed, of the invigilator announcing that our time had begun, the girl in front was straining her arm into the air, demanding more paper, and those special green tie things.

Meanwhile, my page was blank.

Still, there is something incredibly compelling, in an awful sort of way, about working in a library. For one thing, you get quite a lot done, probably partly owing to the First Rule of working in libraries: To be in the library is too long to leave it. Conflict, as anyone who has enjoyed an unhappy relationship can tell you, is a powerful thing. In this instance, the conflict between being in the library and not wanting to be there can produce an acceleration of work – you briefly turn into one of the feverish achievers, only so that you can get out as fast as possible. If you manage things so that the work you do isn’t also totally useless (37 handwritten pages on the Introduction of a book of criticism, oops, I’m out of time) this is even better.

Rules Two and Three are interconnected: To be in the library is to be physically uncomfortable; to be in the library is to be hungry. Obviously, libraries have to protect their books. This leads to a strange, sometimes gulag-like atmosphere (in the British Library’s humanities reading rooms, uniformed men and women conduct random spot checks to ensure no one has anything splodgier than a pencil in sight). The chairs and tables are designed for someone not quite of your height, whether that is tall or short. Enjoy squirming between different, socked interpretations of the half-lotus, and developing interesting cricks in the neck. Re: hunger, when you are in the library, it is intense and gnawing. It is vital that you leave the library about every forty-five minutes to eat something stodgy, and sugary, that you can uneasily fail to digest on your return. Never mind that when you are out of the library, you can go for hours without obsessing over food.

Rule Four: to be in the library is to realise that you are horribly under-informed. Not merely in the subject you have, in extremis, come here to mug up on, whether that should be Freud, or female novels of development, or whatever. No. On important things, things like: What is Katy Perry up to? What is the new shoe shape for fall? How should you be wearing your hair? What is the cricket score? And so forth. The lack of information on any or all of these will gnaw away at you almost as persistently as the unending, library-specific hunger.

This leads us neatly to Rule Five: To be in the library is to be socially awkward. For some reason, the shame and general ingrowingness of spending hours inside a place with fluorescent lighting, slightly uncomfortable seats and other people you suspect you don’t like, while having your nose rubbed in your own ignorance, doesn’t predispose one to charm. And so it is that you find yourself doing strange things, like wandering about short sightedly, blanking people you actually do know, or, worse, skipping down the wrong aisle of books to avoid having to say hello to someone you know and possibly quite like, because that would entail social intercourse. The reason for this is Rule Six, which is actually the Only Rule of being in the library: To be in the library is to have the following conversation with yourself:

Ego: I don’t like it here!

Superego: I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this lately but you are a terrible, worthless individual. Look around. Those are real people. You, on the other hand...

Ego [withers].

Next time, of course, it won’t be like this. Next time, you’ll get in the library earlier, so that it won’t be this sort of horrible, last-minute, hideous panic that reinforces your own intellectual fraudulence (and general worthlessness). Till then, though, try not to think about the library.

Photo: I don't make art anymore

1 comment:

Book Calendar said...

I of course love libraries, but I work in one. There is something awkward about coming into a library where you don't work when you work in one.

This awkwardness translates into a kind of polite uncomfortableness. You think why am I in a library when I work in one, I better be polite and follow the rules.

This leads me to come in the mornings when I am not working usually slightly before noon before the lunch hour crowd comes in. It gives me enough space to come in and not be bothered, maybe see something which we did not order.

I can understand the awkwardness. There are rules which seem a bit old fashioned, no cell phones, no eating, don't go to any unmentionable websites, etc.

Oddly enough, I think that people can get the best service during this time, around 11-11:30 a.m. The staff has just had their morning coffee or tea and have been in the building long enough to be awake. Just before lunch. Also the morning hours are the quietest, easily the best time to study or ask questions. Most people study at night. It is a bit counterintuitive.