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Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Registering at the British Library

An enjoyable 'picture' in the British Library
On my way between Milton Keynes on Monday and Westminster for a planning meeting about an in-house seminar in Cumbria I dropped into the British Library in Euston Road. It's a lot busier than the National Archives and did not strike me as so immediately welcoming. There was no obvious sign pointing to lifts, nor to locker rooms or loos. In short the signage leaves something to be desired, but getting my Reader's Card was straightforward. Details typed into a screen in the card issue room, a number called, and a friendly three minute process with a photo printed on a plastic card. My difficulties began as I tried to get hold of Eleni Calligas' thesis on-line.
I'd tapped into the on-line catalogue and found my reference, but as soon as I clicked the download button - titled 'Get it' - I was logged out. The WiFi system - called RegenerateIT - and the library catalogue didn't seem connected.
I sought a reading room help desk; found one of several, but was sent to the basement by a security guard at the portal, just feet from a help desk, to divest myself of my bag and bike. He was quite right of course, but I was already starting to act outside the precise reasoning necessary to ease the navigation of a large bureaucracy. [I enjoyed this Corfiot version from AFTONMOSTV and the subsequent Hellenic TV commentary Part one and Part two] Two separate lifts were needed to get to the basement. Back at the help desk it became rather clear that the librarian, not computer literate, was unable to explain complications I'd encountered ordering the Calligas thesis. "Why not get a hard copy?" "But it says I can have it downloaded" "Use one of our terminals" said the librarian pointing a little tartly to a bank of screens. "But I want the PDF on my computer." At this point she turned away to talk to the next person at the counter." I persevered. "Excuse me....sorry... excuse me. But can you tell me how ..." "It could take thirty days," "Thirty days! But why does my screen say 'Get it' and refer to a PDF download?" I suddenly wondered if I was talking aggressively to someone who felt their job diminished, even threatened, by spreading digitization; or was it me? Was she fatigued by a daily queue of readers whinging about the technology. I retreated, but my exasperation must have been apparent. Security had an eye on me. Another librarian beckoned me to a different desk. "You have to go through a system called EThOS, it's new. It's overloaded." "Thanks so much!" A wave of relief flooded me. I wasn't going crazy. Then my mobile, set on loud, went off.
Being stuck tightly at the very bottom of my top pocket it took twenty slow and frantic seconds grappling inside my jacket to turn it off. A security guard appeared at my side and asked for my reader's card "because your mobile went off in the library reading room." Helpless, all too aware of my own disdain for people who can't control their mobiles, I gave it to him, sweating with embarrassment, but unclear what would have happened if my phone was set on silent vibration. I waited for the guard to return with the harakiri kit, but my librarian smiled indulgently, "Don't worry. It won't be on your record. He has to check." I could have kissed her. "Yes yes of course. It's so tricky. The fine line between access and security. It's not easy, it's..." She smiled indulgently. In a minute I had my card back and retreated to the street, cycling south through the calming bustle of Euston Road, down Whitehall, past Parliament.
As the Prime Minister announced to the House that Sir John Chilcot would lead an enquiry into the invasion of Iraq, Brian Haw, just across the road, reminded the passing world of the loathsome things we did when we and our allies began this war. In his ninth year of protest. Haw is now the only protestor allowed - after complex legal procedures that were begun to stop him doing just that - to use a loud hailer this close to Parliament. He's a sturdy pawn used by sober functionaries in legal corridors to maintain some small reminder, in a very public place, of the gore with which we've been covered. I did protest; I even marched. I sat where Colmore Road crosses New Street on the evening of 19 March 2003 and spoke angrily and pompously into a police camera in the days before invasion - announcing my name and address and occupation. I wrote letters. I supported Phil Shiner's continuing legal actions, signing petitions to bring Blair to the Hague as a war criminal. I know of no-one in my small circle who doesn't agree with Brian Haw. He won't stop irritating people who want to get on with their lives.
* * *
Teacherdude: This reads like a scene from Brazil. Surreal. Have you thought about looking at stamps from the period and area you are studying? Like coins from ancient times stamps give a snap shot of the political realities of that time.
Me: There's a bank note museum in Corfu Town which sounded a bit unexciting. Now of a sudden I'm keen to go visit, and I'll start looking out for coins and stamps. Efharisto poli teacherdude
By seven in the evening it was getting wet
* * * Iason Athanasiades reporting from Iran for the Washington Post - 17 June 2009

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Simon Baddeley