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SSSHHH! (The Best-Read Office in the World)

Every day novels, film scripts, poems and business plans are written in the British Library. Robin Hunt discovers the people that inhabit perhaps the best-read office in the world.

It's an office in which the telephone rarely rings. But when it does, hundreds turn to stare in collective disapproval, especially when the ringtone is a snatch of Jay-Z. The world's knowledge lives here - although it is to be seen only in tiny glimpses: a pile of books or manuscripts or maps on a desk. Most of these treasures live elsewhere, in the basements that are never seen - which are closely guarded. Who are the people of the stacks, those 600 kilometres of bookshelves that roam 24 metres underground the British Library? What is the secret of the heartbeat of the building, the magnificent George III library that sits, a space within a space, in the centre of the building? Who was this building's architect, and how did he create such an extraordinary environment not just for learning and creativity, but also for social exchange?

With its cavernous modern vistas and restaurants, outsiders sometimes compare the British library to a busy airport. But it is not: it is a five star resort for people who read. And like the most popular resorts it has peak holiday seasons when eager readers must arrive early, put their metaphorical towel on a deck chair to guarantee intellectual sunshine that day. Before the doors open at 9.30 the queue outside snakes as far as the perpetual traffic jam that is the Euston Road. There are no seat privileges.

Who said the library was an anachronism?

Every day thousands of pages of novels and film scripts, doctorates and popular histories, poems and business plans are written here, unknown to anyone but the author. Professors and students commune with books and journals, notebooks and IPads, and, most of all, with the gods and goddesses of creativity, in the fervent hope that the day's writing goes well.

Start-up companies learn about intellectual property, novelists travel mentally to conceptualize faraway lands, resting actors work on that novel. Digerati upstairs formulate the library of the future.

This is not a university, though there are many students; neither a public library, though it's free to join. It's a brains trust and an intellectual catwalk, a competition in erudition and eccentricity, obscurantism and silent comedy. With the help of Robin Hunt - Reader 170890 - we'll discover the peoples that inhabit the modernist jungle of the British Library.

Producer: Vera Frankl
An IGA Production for BBC Radio 4.

30 minutes

Last on

Mon 15 Oct 2012 23:00