Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Space to Think

A very good space - the British Libary at Saint Pancras
Photo by Stephen McKay, some rights reserved

This week, for the first time in many months, I worked in London’s British Library. Although the building, designed in the 1970s but finally opened in 1998, is rather controversial I’ve always been a big fan. I’m impressed by the way the Library’s modern red brick clock-tower echoes the neo-gothic spires of the neighbouring St. Pancras Hotel; I love the way that the Library’s founding collection, King George III’s books, is symbolically preserved in its own glass tower in the heart of the building; but above all the cavernous Humanities One reading room is one of my favourite places to work.

What makes a library inspiring is not altogether straightforward. Simple physical comfort is one factor – big tick for the armchair-style seats of the British Library and the art deco New Bodleian Building. Lots of light is another – the Rare Books Room in the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow is one of the best-lit rooms in that rather dim interwar monolith, and giant pot plants lovingly tended by the curators grow trifid-like around the desks and windows, as people quietly read incunabula. Good cafes to sit, and drink tea, and think, are also a big bonus. There is a spectacular research library café in the courtyard shared by the Vatican Archive and Vatican Library. This café (which some claim is constructed over a nuclear bunker) is built inside a Renaissance fountain, a giant shell-shaped sculpture with a modern glass frontage.

But I think the libraries I’m most attracted to (perhaps no coincidence for a historian who writes mainly on religion) seem to be those which feel most like ecclesiastical structures, buildings with very high ceilings, and a quiet but portentous sense of space, and interesting things to see if you look up. The Bodleian’s Upper Reading Room (where Oxford historians tend to congregate) has a real sense of space, and a wall frieze of famous scholars from Plato onwards to inspire or intimidate the reader. Lincoln College library, a converted 18C church with possible Hawksmoor touches, has fantastically high ceilings, with crisp plasterwork and candelabras. But I think the British Library’s Humanities One has the highest ceilings of all – it’s simply a vast, extravagant indoor space, like sitting in the hull of a very bright ship. When the high-brow television channel BBC 4 was launched, its advertising slogan was ‘everybody needs a space to think’. Perhaps that’s true in a more literal way than the BBC realised.

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