Dans les abîmes de la nouvelle British Library

Soon after the new British Library building opened, the rep for the British Library publishing division paid his regular visit to my shop. Like most travelling book salesmen, Geoff was a great storyteller. ‘What’s it like?’ I asked, since I had loved researching in the old library, when it was housed under the dome of the British Museum. I thought nothing could replace the romance of that space, certainly not a fake-looking building in Euston Road, a building lacking either a memorable shape or a single external feature. How wrong I was.

Geoff explained that the visible part of the library was the tip of an extraordinary iceberg: four double-height sub-basements extend 75 feet below ground. Here, Geoff told me, most of the books are stored in chilled conditions, except for the rarest items, which are in oxygen-free rooms filled with a synthetic argon-based gas called Inergen, a mixture which cannot catch fire. I was agog.

Self: But what happens if a fire starts in the non-rare books areas?

Geoff: Ah, in those areas there is a sprinkler system.

Self: What! A water sprinkler comes on all over the books if a power point starts fizzing? [This actually happened in 2003.]

Geoff: They’ve thought of that doomsday scenario: they’ve got this thing called a Blast Freeze Wind Tunnel down there. You put the damp books inside and it dries them without heating them.

Self: You are shitting me.

Geoff: I shit you not; staff have special training on using it. They practice on wet telephone directories.

Self: Have another fag [it was in the nineties] and tell me more – but is all this for real?

Geoff: Absolutely fucking kosher, I’ve had the secret tour.

Self: Hold on, if it’s all chilled-down and argon down there, how do staff get the books?

Geoff: Robots!

Self: Sounds like a sci-fi movie.

Geoff: Funny you should say that – a French geezer has actually filmed a sci-fi picture down there.

Self: What’s the title, could I order it at Blockbuster? [a video rental chain.]

Geoff: I’m not Barry Norman. I don’t remember that.

Self (still suspicious): So does anyone go down there?

Geoff (warming to his theme): Well, the robots malfunction sometimes and start smashing the place up so then engineers in hazmat suits go down with baseball bats to do battle with them. [Geoff was indulging in poetic licence here, but staff entering the lowest levels do have, according to library staff, ‘special training and breathing apparatus’.]

Self: But isn’t that area all threaded with tube lines?

Geoff: Yeah, it’s eerie – you look across these basement floors as far as the eye can see and occasionally hear tube trains rumbling past as if they’re coming at you. You’ve heard about the audio studios, haven’t you?

Self: Why have they got audio studios?

Geoff: All those cassette recordings of authors, mate. They’re slowly transcribing ’em all digitally: the cassettes are all degrading [stubs out his fag end] – just like you and me. O’ course they need complete silence, so the audio studios are built on a giant two-foot thick rubber pad.

Surprisingly, except for the baseball bats, it’s all true: Inergen, wind tunnel, telephone-directory training, robotic collection, rubber pad (I still cannot trace the movie, however).

Martin Latham, The Bookseller’s Tale.
Particular Books, 2020.

Mercredi 28 octobre 2020 | Bibliothèques |

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