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 lovers of beverages…

    Returning to studenthood has begun a quest for perfect studying spots. I’m a great believer in getting out of the house to work (rather like those ‘job’ things other people have) and avoiding quiet libraries unless I need the books held within them.

    During our bizarre heatwave, the British Library courtyard became a favourite place, but with the advent of autumn proper, that will no longer be tenable. Starbucks are ok, as are Neros, but they often lack atmosphere and life…

    London is awash with independent coffee houses and in my new neighbourhood I’m discovering more and more of them. But last week’s newest discovery is a little further afield. Working on my multi-tasking ethos, I did a few chores on Oxford Street, while toting Greek notes and theology articles in my bag so I could have an impromptu study session when my feet were weary.

    One of my more local ‘discoveries’ (I knew it existed, I just had to have a reason to go there) was the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs, on Leather Lane in Holborn. A couple of weeks ago, its owners opened Speakeasy – an expresso bar off Carnaby Street. Finding myself weary and in the vicinity on Wednesday, I thought I’d pay a visit.

    As you may know, I’m not a coffee fan, so I can’t comment upon its brews, beans and filters. However, I can tell you that these guys love their coffee and do everything in their power to do it well – and to teach you along the way. I’m a tea drinker and they do that well, so I’m happy. Teapot, tea leaves that you place in the pot & you takeout when it’s brewed sufficiently – that’s excellent tea etiquette.

    In some ways I preferred Speakeasy to DCSA – it seemed lighter and more open. Plus, downstairs in the filter room are two shelves of books – books of a variety that I adore. Penguin Great Ideas series – check. Virago ‘pretty books’ – check. Persephone books – check. Orwell – check. Plenty about New Zealand – check. Actually, the quality of their book browsing section is down to the fact that my good, bibliophile friend Katie was responsible for choosing them and she did a great job. The staff are friendly and enthusiastic and the tables are an excellent height for studying. One could say it was an oasis of calm in the manic West End.

    At the end of the day, it’s just nice to be somewhere without banging and shouting; where staff aren’t simply trying to get you to buy a tasteless muffin; and where the aim is to ensure that you get the best beverage and drinking experience possible.

    A pot of Earl Grey is perfect accompaniment to the task of creating Greek vocab flashcards. 

    Postscript:
    I wrote this post on and off yesterday, intending to finish it off last night – but I got distracted. Kind of lucky (and really only vaguely ‘kind of’) as this morning I experienced another joyous beverage experience during a pre-work coffee. [Yes, I managed a social engagement BEFORE work – this is all kind of impressive and not at all to do with the presence of workmen in my flat at 8.15am…] 
    The Espresso Room is just across the road from Great Ormond Street hospital and is exactly what it says it is – a room that serves espresso (and other coffee based drinks, plus tea and rather yummy looking pastries). It’s tiny but has wooden stools and benches out on the pavement that are perfect for perching on and watching the world go by. Its proximity to the hospital is deliberate, and the owner hopes to open similar establishments near other London hospitals, which, given what I’ve heard about hospital cafeterias is probably an excellent plan. 
    On reflection, I should have had the teapot in the foreground. 
    It was eminently functional, with an in-built strainer. Delightful.