Researchers have been grousing about the boisterous atmosphere and crowded conditions at the British Library for years. But the dispute — a philosophical battle, really, over who should be allowed access to a great national library — spilled out in public last week when The Times of London published an article quoting various distinguished figures complaining about the out-of-control mood over spring break.
The article described how the author Lady Antonia Fraser had been obliged to wait for 20 minutes in freezing weather just to enter the building, and another 20 minutes to leave her coat at the mandatory check-in desk.
It described how another writer, Christopher Hawtree, had been “forced to perch on a windowsill” because he could not get a desk.
To my way of thinking this has far less to do with British schoolgirls annoying people by giggling in a hallowed institution of learning and far more to do with the way that academics seek to impose their mores on students. It is a fact today that most students have mobile phones and a lot of them have laptops. Would it be unreasonable to adapt to this? It seems natural that the “net native” generation would turn to collaboration more readily than previous generations (and why is this necessarily a bad thing?). The problem isn’t these boisterous kids, it’s that our academic institutions (once again) haven’t caught up to the way that people want to learn, communicate and collaborate. The institution of the library clearly isn’t serving these students’ needs. That doesn’t make it automatically the students’ fault; it may not even be Lady Antonia Frasier’s fault. It seems more likely that we are actually in need of a new kind of institution, one with some aspects of a library but without its monastery-esque structure and mindless bureaucracy.
I’m running into this kind of thing myself as I take a community college class this semester (which I know I haven’t mentioned here yet — I’m planning on saying a lot more about this once the semester is over). Suffice it to say that when you see a huge sign outside a campus media center that says NO COMPUTERS ALLOWED and doesn’t permit students to photocopy out-of-print texts under the principle of academic fair use, there’s something fishy at work there — it certainly isn’t the interests of students that are being served.