clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

`The End' to storied London reading refuge

A storied part of London's intellectual life comes to an end this weekend with the closing of the British Library's Round Reading Room, where Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf studied and Karl Marx researched and wrote "Das Kapital."

The closure of what novelist Malcolm Bradbury calls "the most literary and scholarly spot in the world" - a soaring, copper-domed open space lined with books - is part of a move to a new, consolidated home for the library.The new site, an angular red-brick structure with small windows and large slabs of unbroken wall, has been denounced by Prince Charles as more suitable for "an academy for secret police" than a place of scholarly pursuit.

Created by architect Colin St. John Wilson, it will be partially open to the public next year and fully open by June 1999 - six years behind schedule.

The academics, writers and researchers awarded coveted Reading Room badges can begin work Nov. 24 at the new building, near London's St. Pancras Station. But they'll be leaving behind the cozy, historic confines of the British Museum and its bohemian Bloomsbury neighborhood.

For nearly 150 years, the Reading Room was frequented by some of the era's most creative minds - Marx, Vladmir Lenin (who used a pseudonym to obtain a badge), W.B. Yeats, Robert Browning, T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy.

But as novelist David Lodge noted in The Daily Telegraph, it also was home to "countless obscure, ordinary people, united by a common interest in the knowledge that can be found in books."

"It has been the refuge of political exiles," Lodge wrote, "a place of pilgrimage for foreign scholars, a resource center for researchers of every kind, and a free, warm workplace for indigent writers."

In fact, so many political exiles studied there that the police assigned an inspector to watch their movements - one reason Lenin used an assumed name.

Shaw, who wrote five unsuccessful novels in the Reading Room, as well as his first play, said the facility catered to everyone from "earnest seekers to heavy sleepers."

The Reading Room opened in 1857, designed by the British Museum's architect, Sir Robert Smirke, to meet the wishes of its Italian librarian, Sir Anthony Panizzi, who fled to England to escape retribution for his part in an 1821 revolution.

Its copper dome - supported by 20 cast-iron ribs resting on walls lined with books - measures 140 feet in diameter, just edging out the 139 feet of St. Peter's in Rome.

Most people have never seen firsthand the beauty and symmetry of the room, other than in the rare guided tour: To get inside, you need a reader's pass. And to get a reader's pass, you must successfully argue that no other library will serve your research purposes.

The room, with its concentric rings of reference-book shelves, is shaped like a bicycle wheel, with a circular inquiry desk at the hub. Lines of reading desks radiate outward like spokes, with 300 work spaces.

The desks are ideal for concentrated work: covered with padded leather, with chairs to match, and shielded by tall, wooden partitions that screen the person opposite from view. A fold-down shelf is provided for extra books.

The room, which will be closed at 5 p.m. Saturday, is due to reopen in 2001 as a library connected to the British Museum's collection, its vast space cut in half by a glass screen.

Its replacement, just three-quarters of a mile away at St. Pancras, will be much more efficient, with electronic gadgetry that will drastically cut waiting time for reference materials.

But, as Lodge notes, its utilitarian setup "is unlikely to inspire the same intensity and variety of emotions as its parent building in Bloomsbury: awe, affection, nostalgia, amusement and sometimes (human nature and intellectual life being what they are) ennui and despair."

Leave the last word to William Makepeace Thackeray, the Victorian author best-known for the novel "Vanity Fair."

"What peace, what love, what truth, what beauty, what happiness for all . . . are here spread out!" he wrote of the Reading Room. "It seems to me one cannot sit down in that place without a heart full of grateful reverence."