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.

Overheard on the 19.28 from Richmond to London Waterloo

“Well, it’s not as though you’re 35 and have to marry the first man that comes along or be single forever…” 

“Marry him right this minute!” 

“Only on the cheeks? How very 1940’s of him. Next time maybe you should take the initiative.” 

“You found things to talk about for NINE hours – of course there’ll be a third date!” 

“Ooooh, maybe we could double-date?! I LOVE double-dating!”

In these five extracts from a phone conversation that lasted from Richmond to London (approximately 15 minutes) we have many of the problems that exist in female friendships:

(i) Ridiculous relationship advice. The woman spent the entire conversation practically insisting that her friend must like this latest man, even though the friend in question was rather confused about it all.

Don’t get me wrong, advice between friends is excellent. Whenever I have an issue there is a distinct circle of people who are consulted (always the true researcher, this usually includes a varied sample of ages, faith backgrounds, relationship statuses and occasionally genders), but their advice is considered on its individual merits. But, there will always be ridiculous advice that’s not worth taking.

(ii) Over-excitement at friends getting into relationships. When one is a smug-married (and I know this girl was, her boyfriend was right next to her, immersed in a book and muttering at intervals) the temptation is to drag every single one of your friends kicking and screaming into smug-marriedness with you – regardless of whether or not they are interested in someone or if someone is interested in them.

(iii) The classifying of men and the adoption of stupid nicknames. Referring to her chum’s potential new man as “1940’s man” owing to his chivalrous tendencies was odd, referring to her own boyfriend as “1960’s man” was even weirder. Thing is, I think a lot of women do it. Amongst my friends there are men referred to as ‘idiot boy’, ‘J-God’, ‘Fish’ and ‘Tim’. (Yes, the last one might sound like a perfectly normal name, but it is in fact code.)

Anyway, why would someone have such a conversation, loudly, with a highly irritating tone of voice and laugh (think Janice from Friends) in public? It’s the friend she was talking to that I feel sorry for. I bet she’s delighted that an entire train carriage have heard the details of her dating adventures!