The Reading Room from 'Old and New London' (1880)
The Reading Room from 'Old and New London' (1880) © Bridgeman Images

If the heart of Bloomsbury is the British Museum, then the British Museum Reading Room was until recently at the very heart of its heart. I used to go there in the 1980s, when this central domed chamber (only 2ft less in diameter than the Roman Pantheon) still housed the British Library.

Walking over from Hanover Square after work, I would be seated by 6.30pm, bracing myself against the Reading Room’s drowsy embrace: I had quotations to check! I don’t remember any overhead lighting except from the 20 windows around the dome (papier-mâché, painted sky blue) and the glazed area at its apex. As daylight faded and the ranks of readers began to thin out, only the lamps of those still at their desks remained lit, individual yellow pools in this toasty twilight.

Of course, when the Reading Room first opened in 1857, this evening shift would have been impossible. Then, there could be no artificial light at all, neither gas nor candlelight, because of the fire risk. Then, as soon as dusk fell, or even before that if there was a peasouper outside, the readers were all packed off home.

Some 500 mahogany desks rayed out in lines like the spokes of a bicycle wheel from the hub area of concentric catalogue-shelves encircling the librarians. It was oddly disorientating trying to find the way back to your desk once you had ordered your books; easy to overshoot and find yourself circling helplessly. Thackeray had been moved to write in his diary, “In the great circle of the library, Time is looking into Space,” and something about the air under that vast dome, its lofty muffled acoustic and stalled echo, confirmed this impression of cosmic vagueness.

Everywhere I looked as evening wore on, readers would be dropping like flies, heads at rest on their desks. In July 1868 it was recorded that Swinburne, ambushed by sleep, had collapsed over his desk and grazed his forehead. Strange to think that such a soporific space should be where communism was dreamt up: Marx was a regular for decades (reputedly favouring desk 07), then Lenin (under the alias Jacob Richter). A Russian émigré was arrested here one day in 1897, the police having lain in wait by the Reading Room exit to nab him for plotting to murder the Tsar. It was round about this time that the library decided to remove John Cundill’s Dictionary of Explosives from its shelves.

The nearest to trouble I witnessed during my evenings there was a sort of violent peevishness. If you sat at a desk some cod-Casaubon had privately designated his own, you risked a campaign of harrumphing and eye-rolling indignation to make you move. As I was there, however, to finish my thesis on Restoration farce, painstakingly double-checking my transcription of stage directions such as, “His stooles come very quickly upon him, one after another,” any distraction was better than none.

Books were ordered from the perforated cast-iron stacks or from the warren of underground tunnels by hauling out one of the 2,300 leather-bound folio catalogues and searching the (often handwritten) pasted-in entries before filling out a form in triplicate and posting it down a hydraulic tube. Sometimes you were lucky and the book would be delivered to your desk within the hour; at others the librarian would shimmer up and murmur, “Sorry, that’s at Woolwich,” which meant twiddling your thumbs for a couple of days. When closing time came at 9pm, the way out led past the Rosetta Stone.

Time passed. The Reading Room was closed in 1997 and it took three years to transfer the books from its 25 miles of shelving to their next home, the new British Library building on the Euston Road.

Meanwhile Norman Foster’s millennial roof had transformed the old British Museum quadrangle into a glass-covered Great Court itself the size of Hanover Square. At its core, encased in a shell of white marble also housing gift shops, cafés and toilets, reposed the old Reading Room. It rests here still, safe inside its brave new carapace and listed status. Its future looks cosmically vague. For the time being, though, it slumbers on unobserved, the hidden epicentre of the British Museum.

Helen Simpson’s most recent short-story collection, ‘Cockfosters’, is published by Jonathan Cape

Photograph: Bridgeman Images

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