I love Julie Valerie’s topic for her blog hop this month. Libraries! Avid writers/readers like me are passionate about libraries! And I’ll bet anything we have similar warm memories of the place—devouring everything in the juvenile section, from Go Dog Go to Judy Blume; discovering our genre of choice that we actually ended up writing as adults, like romance or mystery; meeting our friends there; spending rainy afternoons wandering through the stacks. We can all expound on the feeling of being surrounded by thousands of volumes, the smell of old books, the crinkling sound of the clear plastic covers protecting the hardbacks, the nice (or mean) librarian who always seemed to be behind the counter, the thunk of the card reader.
So, to avoid repeating a tale every library lover knows by heart, I’ll tell you about the time I became a fugitive from a library. In a foreign country.
My alma mater is Hartwick College. I love the place dearly, but it’s on a mountaintop in the Catskills in the middle of New York State. It’s beautiful, but in winter…pure hell. Although freshmen had to stay on campus during January, or “J-term,” when all students took just one class, everyone else got the hell out of Dodge. Studying abroad was crazy popular, especially anywhere tropical. In my junior year, I opted out of a literature class in the Caribbean (I KNOW!) in favor of realizing my long-standing anglophile dream: to spend a month in London going to a jillion plays with a theater class. Heaven!
While our time was taken up with attending class and seeing plays (okay, and going to pubs), we had one weekend completely free. Most of the students traveled—Paris, Ireland, etc.—but I was broke, so I stayed put. My fellow broke-and-staying-put classmate, Nancy, and I decided to be practical and tackle the paper we had to write on the history of a British theater. We were each assigned a different one. I don’t remember which theater I had to report on, but I do remember Nancy’s: the Barbican.
The Barbican was fairly new and so wasn’t included in our textbook. How, we wondered, were we going to get information on it? After all, this was 1986 B.I. (Before Internet). There was no Google. Hell, there wasn’t even AltaVista (if you aren’t old as dirt, like me, you’ll have to look that one up). What was our go-to for research? THE LIBRARY!
There was one problem: We couldn’t find a “local branch” of the British library system in the heart of London. We tried. We thought we had a hot lead on one, but we took a wrong turn and ended up wandering some ancient back streets until we stumbled upon SoHo. Back then, SoHo was a little…different. We got information, all right—flyers stuffed into our hands touting “Live Bed Shows!”
We beat a hasty retreat, somehow managed to get to Oxford Circus, and restored our scarred souls with a Wendy’s hamburger at the only Wendy’s restaurant at the time. Ironically, we didn’t enjoy it—by that time we’d gone native and vastly preferred pub grub instead.
The following day, we determined that the one library we knew about was the British Library. Sure, the bulk of the place was like a museum, but there were still regular books—they just weren’t all around you, free to grab. You had to ask. We could do that.
So we marched through the British Library to the research department. The person at the desk handed us a clipboard and a pen, and we took a seat alongside other earnest-looking students who were madly scribbling away at their forms.
Nancy started writing. Name, address, etc….nothing unusual. After that, however, there was room to expound on the nature of your research. The subject…your university…your area of study…the scholars and instructors who would vouch for you…Essentially, it wanted to know what your doctoral thesis was going to be, in great detail, and why they should allow you to even be in the same room with several of their books, let alone touch them.
Nancy looked at me, wide-eyed. I looked back at her. Neither of us spoke. Obviously we were in the wrong place and were about to be laughed out of the Rare Books department. I whispered to Nancy, “Move very slowly. Put the clipboard on the chair. We’ll inch toward the door. Once we’re out in the hall, run.”
And that’s exactly what we did.
Oh, we realized nobody was going to chase us down and arrest us; we had simply underestimated the level of gravitas we needed to bring to the frickin’ British Library. In hindsight, it seems pretty obvious, but hey—lesson learned. All we lost was a fair amount of our dignity.
Then, on the way to the Tube, I had a brainstorm: Go to the Barbican itself. Just as I suspected, the gift shop had a little booklet on the history of the Barbican that only cost a couple of pounds. Thrilled to bits at our brilliance and resourcefulness, we even brazenly marched into the theater so Nancy could get a good mental picture to help her write her paper.
In the end, Nancy was able to complete her assignment in the safety of our school dorm instead of locked in a sterile room in the bowels of the British Library after signing her life away to swear she wouldn’t breathe on the hallowed tomes (although that would have been fun too). And we had a great story of how we intrepidly hunted down our quarry; I hope our professor was moved to give Nancy a good grade. She earned it!