Relieving academic tedium

In many ways, the British Library is a place that brings joy to my heart. It owns every book ever published in this country; it’s free to join; it’s full of nerds; and it’s a mere 15 minute walk from my flat. Add to that my status as a three-year pass holder (a height only reached by true academics and professional researchers – it’s a merit of my previous job, not my current undergrad status), and it ought to be a dream place to study…

…however, I loathe going there with a passion.

The first problem is that you can’t borrow the books. For obvious reasons this would be a terrible thing, but still, it would make life a lot more pleasurable if I could take the theology texts I’ve only been able to locate there out of the building and into a nice independent coffee place (or my own home).

Secondly, the atmosphere in the reading rooms can get oppressive in the extreme. Lots of people desperately researching things doesn’t create an atmosphere that’s pleasant to read in.

Thirdly, the staff can be vicious – although vicious to the point of being entertaining. Fancy a bit of an academic soap opera? Sit in the registration room and watch the staff shatter the illusions of American undergraduates. [Have the correct paperwork, know what you’re hoping to use the BL for and a previous card and you’ll be treated like royalty.]

Fourthly, 9 times out of 10, I’ll request books that turn out to be stored off-site and will take ’48 hours’ (usually 4 days) to reach me.

But, the bottom line is that the BL contains books I can’t get anywhere else and need to read for essays, so I’ve had to come up with strategies to make time there more bearable. Here are my top tips:

1. Find a study buddy.
Obviously, chatting in the reading rooms is verboten, but it’s good to have someone to raise an eyebrow with, in a ‘shall we go and get a coffee?’ way.

2. Choose the right reading room.
I’d been using Humanities II for some time (it’s where some journals were back in my history student days), but it’s rather dreary. Business & IP is more colourful (and has a spacious mezzanine level that people don’t seem to know about), but the winner by many miles is the Rare Books & Music room. For some time, friends have been telling me that it’s where the coolest readers (and hottest men) study. Yesterday I checked it out and I can confirm that it’s true.

3. Order books in advance…
…and regularly check your BL account so that you know when they’re in. There’s no point making a wasted journey to the BL. Lots are only 70 minutes away, but many aren’t.

4. Create your own reward system
Most people would do something along the lines of ‘after 90 minutes reading, I’ll go to the cafe and eat cake’. I, on the other hand, have come up with a somewhat uniquely Liz scheme…

When I was young, I would fantasise about belonging to the BL. (Yes, I was that special as a child.) It had been explained to me by my Dad that this building contained all the books ever written (well, not exactly, but pretty much). My Chalet School obsessed young mind quickly deduced that a ticket for this institution would give me access to every book its author, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer had ever produced. (That would be 58 Chalet School books, several tie-ins and numerous non-Chalet titles.)

I’m currently in the midst of a bit of a Chalet School regression (thanks to some bargain hardbacks I’ve managed to secure of late), and thus, while struggling yesterday morning with some theology with which I seriously disagreed (and was very badly written), I came up with a plan. At the beginning of a BL session, I would order an EBD book (fortunately, all seem to be in-house) and, if I successfully got through all my theology orders, I would pick it up and have some fun.

The cover illustration is almost as odd as the contents.

Thus, yesterday I found myself reading The Chalet Girls Cook Book. This isn’t part of the series, it’s a bizarre extra with rather odd recipes interspersed with conversation between four of the main characters. Until recently, I’d never even laid eyes on this particular volume – sure, I’d heard of it, but holding a £250 copy in a Covent Garden bookshop was the closest I’d got to it. I’m really rather glad I didn’t buy it now. I’m looking forward to getting my hands upon books that have acquired near mythical status in all my years of EBD fandom. That is definitely a motivation for getting through even the driest theology.

5. Acquire a loyalty card for the BL cafe
You’ll be spending a lot of time (and money) there.

A blissful library experience

One of the advantages of being a student is the holidays – four weeks off Monday college days. However, the downside is that there are essays to write (and just two weeks off from the church bit of training), which amongst all the excitement of Christmas, is rather arduous.

Thanks to having had a research-based job for the last few years, the return to essay writing hasn’t been as much of a shock to the system as it might have been, but that doesn’t mean I always have the motivation needed. Combine that with Christmas events at church; choir rehearsals; parties; drinks; present shopping; flat decorating; and visiting friends – there’s not that much room for studying. Fortunately, one friend suggested combining their visit from Sweden with a day studying together at the British Library – genius. (It works because you can’t chat in the reading room, so no distractions.)

My cunning plan for having a productive Christmas was that I was going to be spending the festive period at a theological college. Sometimes, just sometimes, the fact that my parents live at a college comes in handy – at Christmas when the massive college fridges are very useful; last year when we needed all their urns during the water shortage; and, when I need books for an essay.

Good intentions count for little when there’s family to have fun with, but once the fun elements (i.e. sibling & husband – joke, mother!) departed, I settled down to some hard work. What I discovered was the most blissful library experience ever:

  • I didn’t need to go outside to get there and could wear my slippers.
  • The library was empty – and likely to stay that way – meaning I could listen to music (and, inevitably, sing along). 
  • From my table I had a view, and not just any view – one of vegetation. In London I’m lucky if I get a Victorian lamp-post.
  • The aforementioned vegetation was mostly my parents’ garden, which meant that for part of an afternoon I had a great view of my Dad trying to re-build his arch which the wind seemed determined to decimate. 
  • From my seat, I could also see the window of my parents’ dining room. This meant that I could stay studying until the light came on in that room, at which point I knew it was time to offer assistance.
  • My study breaks included home-cooked meals which I didn’t have to pay for. You don’t get that at the BL.
    Somewhere in amongst that vegetation is my father…

    I know the BL’s only 10 minutes walk away and King’s Maughan library’s just 20 minutes, but I have to wear shoes to get to them…

    For Christmas I would like…

    …some hot librarians please.

    You know how much I adore books? You know how my Oyster card wallet contains a veritable top trumps of library cards? [I see your 1 year Bodleian card and raise you a 3 year British Library ticket…] You know how much I long for an intellectual, bookish, beardy yet hot man? You know how much I love utterly inappropriate calendars? [Perhaps not, but wait & check my archives.]

    Christmas came early with the discovery of Men of the Stacks – a 2012 hot librarian’s calendar.
    Be. Still. My. Beating. Heart.

    Actually, don’t get your hopes up, they’re not all that promising. Personally, I’d buy the calendar and leave it on Mr January for the rest of the year:

    At my office farewell in the summer, the Strategic Leader designated to give a speech decided to highlight the appropriate-yet-inappropriate calendars that C and I had had for two years running (it’s lucky that I’ve known him longer than I’ve worked with him, else I could have felt very convicted by the speech). Much amusement was derived from the Calendario Romano, aka ‘the hot priests calendar’ – I’m just sorry we never  acquired the Mormon version (see above link too)… You can only buy the hot priests in Rome and my mother was mortified when requested to acquire the 2010 version on a trip there – I’m sensing that she wouldn’t be up for purchasing the librarian version for me. 
    Anyway, it’s for charity – obviously – so much good should come out of it, plus the fact that it shows librarians not to be the old lady with cats stereotype that’s been perpetuated for decades. 

    Familial communication

    Since my parents moved to Ireland six years ago, actual, in the flesh family gatherings have been limited to Christmas and special family occasions – weddings, relatives’ significant birthdays, graduations etc – and I get over to Belfast once or twice a year, but usually separate from my sister (so we can spread the joy of daughter visits a bit further). As a result we’ve developed a cunning variety of tag-team family contact, in which none of us are all together simultaneously, but manage to see pretty much everyone in a short period of time, something both my father and I will be managing in the course of the next week or so.

    Tuesday night witnessed the closest my family gets to a four-way conversation these days. My father and I were sat together on a bus, he was on the phone to my mother (in Nottingham) and I was on the phone to my sister (in Tewks). A conversation about a friend’s GCSE results went like this:

    Mum to Dad: Does Mim know what Meredith’s results were like? 
    Dad to me: Your Mum wants to know if Mim knows Meredith’s results?
    Me to Mim: What did Meredith get?
    Mim to me: One A*, some As, a couple of Bs and a C
    Me to Dad: One A*, some As, a couple of Bs and a C
    Dad to Mum: One A*, some As, a couple of Bs and a C
    Goodness only knows what the people around us thought about this ridiculous carry on! 
    This week my Dad’s been staying with me, having a few days of being a tourist in London. Initially I laughed when I heard that his idea of London fun involved at least two libraries (the British Library and my very own Hogwarts – Dr Williams Library) and a lot of walking. It was only last night, while comparing our library cards, that I realised I really am a chip off the old block. [He’s the first person I rang when I was gifted a three-year ticket to the BL instead of the usual one-year, courtesy of my business card that proved I was indeed a ‘professional’ researcher!]

    Our similarity was cemented with his choice of pub. We’d agreed to meet in London Bridge and I had a plan to take him to The George Inn – one of London’s oldest pubs – because I figured he’d appreciate the history and it’s opposite a branch of my favourite Turkish restaurant. When I rang him (in the midst of torrential rain) it turned out he was sheltering in a pub, the The George Inn to be precise – spooky! Those that know me well may also be amused to hear that he’d thought to look up the London Bridge area in the Good Pub Guide while browsing in Waterstones – always a researcher… 

    Having said all that, given that he has a beard and bears an uncanny resemblance to Gerry Adams, the similarities end with libraries, pubs and research. 

    Literary gems

    I have a few passions in life and I particularly like it when a few of them combine – it results in a lot of joy. Imagine my excitement on discovering a blog written by librarians that shares the awful books they and their colleagues have discovered.

    I love blogs, books, people who organise books methodically and comedy, therefore what could I not like about Awful Library Books?

    There’s a wide variety of gems. Some are simply outdated (can you imagine the misinformation within a 1987 publication on AIDS or adoption?), others probably should never have been written in the first place (‘Problems of Death’), whilst others simply suffer from being both old and comedy….

    For example, ‘My Cat’s in Love: or, how to survive your feline’s sex life, pregnancy and kittening’. It comes complete with garish (and disturbing) cover art, and, having been published in 1970 is probably just a little out of date to still be in circulation. Or, how about the very wrong ‘Life Blood: A new image for menstruation’ (1988)?
    My personal favourite (so far, I’ve not gone through all the archives yet!) is:
    I particularly love it’s incredibly attractive cover, and I know Jo will love it too (she’s a syphillologist and thanks to her I know more about syphillis than I ever thought I would!).
    But, what I love most about this site is that it’s written by actual librarians who genuinely care about whether the American public (of course it’s an American site – but I’m sure a British one would be just as, if not more hilarious) has the right information at its fingertips. Comedy and public service: a classic combination.