Leaving the British Library I amble through the rush hour crowd that breaths in and out of Kings Cross station. Spotting my older brother waiting for me across the road I struggle my way to him.
“How did it go?” he asks
“Amazing,” I reply, “I’m exhilarated, that was brilliant.”
He pauses for a moment, a flicker of amusement in his eyes.
“What?” a note of defence in my voice.
“Oh nothing, I’ve just thought of a new twitter hashtag, #thingspeopledontusuallysayaboutlibraries.”
I’m certain that I could come up with a few entries for that hashtag game, having a soft spot in my heart for a number of libraries and, indeed, libraries in general. However, the cause of this particular burst of enthusiasm was my first trip to that Mummy and Daddy of all libraries: The British Library.
This trip was a big step in ‘the pursuit of history’ for me. It was a mental hurdle I had to leap, a remnant disappointment from that past that had begun to rather dominate my mind in the past few months. I don’t seem to be having a problem convincing people that I am a historian and a writer (not having an actual job helps), but the one person I am constantly struggling to persuade stubbornly resists the notion, and that person is typing these words right now. A wise and witty person told me recently that the best way to become a freelance writer is to believe that you are one, and so bit-by-bit I’m attempting to do just that.
Somehow managing to make it through a Bachelors and Masters degree in History without ever visiting a major archive was a source of internal ire for me. How could I call myself a historian if I’ve never even been in to the British Library reading rooms? It became one of those things in life that we build up in our thoughts until the idea becomes so much more dramatic than the reality. So what broke the dam? Well leaving the employ of a University had one very significant and unfortunate consequence; I lost my access to all the academic online resources that I’d grown accustomed to. I’ll admit it, I took all of them for granted, especially my beloved EEBO. This is not the time to vent my spleen on this issue though. Reader, the hurt is still too raw (sob, sniffle, sniffle etc). Aside from access to the books themselves, acquiring a British Library Readers Pass enables you to access online academic resources on-site (although not download items from them) and that was the clincher.
That is how I found myself hurrying through a London deluge toward the red brick, monolithic facade of the British Library. Damn near every book ever published was waiting for me to complete one, key step. That step was convincing the staff that I should be allowed a Readers Pass, apparently they do not give them out to everyone. Here the battle begins, I’m a mediocre bullshitter, I’m ok if I can convince myself, but if I can’t then I’m crap. The quest is not helped by the Reader Registration Office having the general ambience of a Job Centre. I’m faced with two receptionists, one is old and a little severe looking, the other young and trendy with piercings and attractive hair. I find myself pathetically hoping that I’m called over by the latter, because, you know, I’m young and trendy and… crap, no I’m not, but it’s too late she’s already asking me questions.
“Why do you want access to the Reading Rooms?” she asks with a smile.
Clever, I think, clever question, so many possible answers. Yes, she’s tricksy…. Oh balls, I really should be answering now.
“Um, I’m a freelance writer, I write about history.”
“Great! I love history!”
“Do you have a business card? Or membership of a relevant organisation?”
“Weeell, no. I’m yet to actually make any money as such.”
Don’t tell her that, stop telling her that. Stop talking.
“Oh. We’ll need to see evidence of why you should be allowed to access the Library.”
Crap. Time to play my only card.
“I do have a blog though.”
“Excellent.” She looks pleased, “What’s the address?”
“In pursuit of history dot com. No www dot.”
She starts typing.
She’s actually looking it up. Why was the last post a silly video. Urgh, it doesn’t even have my picture on. This is going to be humiliating.
“Yep, it’s got your name on it, that’s fine”, she scribbles a note and hands it to me, “Three year pass, just fill your details in on one of the computers and they’ll call out your number and give you a card.”
There we have it, aside from a second awkward conversation in which I’m told about the benefits of searching the online catalogue, I got my card. So it appears that this ol’ blog does have its uses after all (must remember to feed it more often).
The thing about any civic or national institution, be it a library or museum, is that they are always unbelievably intimidating to begin with. The Reading Rooms themselves ooze seriousness, with row upon row of desks and computers, wrapped in walls of weighty reference tomes. However, once you get past that initial fear, once they start to become familiar and you figure out how they work, then the intimidation disappears. Libraries work best when you can feel at home, so once there I honed in on a free computer and began to acclimatise.
I broke my British Library hoodoo that day, but the place itself is so utterly charged with potential that I defy anyone to not be exhilarated by it. Next time I’ll have an even clearer idea of what I want to access, and there will be no fear, ‘cause, you know, I must be a proper historian, I’ve got a British Library Readers Pass. Oh and a blog.
I’m thinking the next step is the National Archives, watch this space.