This little piece in the LRB by Inigo Thomas suggests that the controversies about what some of us still think of as the “new” British Library will never settle down. But, as is often the case with the LRB, the real fun is in the letters. I especially enjoyed the dueling anecdotes by Richard Davenport-Hines and Roger Morsley-Smith — apparently men with double-barreled names are obliged to respond to one another — about dealing with nasty librarians. Their stories reminded me of something that happened to me nearly twenty years ago.
For many years it was relatively easy to gain the privilege of using Oxford’s great Bodleian Library, but then at some point in the early 1990s, as more and more people wanted admission for purely touristic purposes, the Great Crackdown began. Suddenly it became almost impossible to convince any of the Guardians there that one’s research interests were legitimate, that one’s status as a scholar made one worth of entry.
I was writing a book on W. H. Auden at the time and very much needed to see some of the Auden materials held by the Bodleian. Fortunately, I had a friend, Professor Don Sniegowski of Notre Dame, who had been a Rhodes Scholar many years ago and at Exeter College had made friends with a young Englishman named David Vaisey. And David Vaisey had eventually become Bodley’s Librarian, as the head of the Bodleian Library is charmingly called. He wrote me a note to invite me to tea at his office.
Mr Vaisey proved to be a gracious host indeed, and told me that while he could not simply decree me worthy of admission to the Bodleian, he would be happy to write a letter recommending my admission. He did so as I waited. I then made my way to the office of the Guardians, where the very woman who had heaped scorn on my pleas a few days before was waiting. She clearly remembered me, and set her jaw in such a way as to indicate implacability. I handed her the letter, which she held out disdainfully before her. Then she saw the letterhead and the signature. Her eyes widened and her voice rose an octave or two. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “The Librarian!”