This has been bugging me for years. I've so far held off writing down my rant, but Tristram Hunt et al have pushed me over the edge. I figure that Hunt's suggestion that only select final year undergrads should be allowed to use the British Library (i.e. over 21s) is a question of young people's access to knowledge, and so I'll blog about it here.
Basically the fuss surrounds the fact that the British Library is overused around Easter. It can be hard to get a seat if you arrive after 11. Plus, in recent years they've been a bit a bit more open in their access policy, largely letting local undergrads in (which they were always very fierce about in my day).
Cue headlines all over the place on 'Frappachino' kids ruining the once hallowed halls of the British Library reading room. With their Pokemon and their SunnyD; texting, chatting, passing lecture notes on major religions and dressing like they're auditioning for the next series of Skins.
What bugs me, and fair few others, is the suggestion that problems at the BL are some how the fault of increased access policies. To Tristam Hunt et al, I say get over it, we live in a society. Moreover, the BL's a publicly-funded space. Learn to share, even with those brash kiddies.
That said, I am continually disgusted by what I think is misuse of the BL. People seem to use the library as a cool place to hang out. As a nice place to work. And they shouldn't. The BL isn't a public library, or even a 'proper library', it's a library of last resort. It has a very specific role, it's a place to read books you can't get anywhere else. Use the library for anything else and you are potentially obstructing the work of others. It might be true that academics have more of an awareness of this issue than 6th formers, but that's no reason to make use of the place exclusive. The library can just get better at communicating its proper function to potential members. That counts equally for the ageing Professor looking at nothing but his own computer as he proof-reads his latest work of great insight as it does the 16 year old annotating their own copy of York Notes, Macbeth (or the people, of various ages, I continually spot SLEEPING there).
I have equal disdain for the freelancers who use the coffee shops as free office space. Firstly, how dare they power their laptops off publicly-funded electricity? Secondly, I think a fair number of them hang out there largely to pose. I'm sure many of the BL consumers simply like the atmosphere of being around intellect. They sit with their posh laptops, sipping middle class coffees with middle class clothes and a stench of superiority - you know the style (and I admit, I often apply it myself). It's all very well indulging that aesthetic in a bar, cafe, private art gallery or even the London Library. But such use of the BL not only draws on the image of it as a middle class high-brow space, but emphasises it. I think that just reproduces the idea of the BL as a location not simply for learning, but as a site for social distinction. Bourdieu would have a field day, and I'm sure it puts off many of the people the access programmes seek to encourage.
To conclude my ramble, my biggest issue with all this recent fuss about the BL is that these 'frappuccino kids' aren't that far off the elite themselves. With their use of it as a fashion choice, they exacebate elitist boundaries, not challenge them. The BL isn't a lifestyle (and they can stop those bloody single nights too), its a utilitarian public service. The more people who remember and respect that, the better off we'll all be.