In March 2020, the British Library closed its doors to the public for the foreseeable future, which was a first during my 30 years of working here. The quiet buzz of researchers and entrepreneurs, the Piazza full of people and visitors in exhibition galleries suddenly disappeared.
Four months on, we are gradually returning to our sites in London and Yorkshire, and have prioritised reopening our Reading Rooms to enable researchers to return to the Library to consult collection items, many of which are not available online. But things will be very different for all of us.
With over 112,000 square metres of floor space in St Pancras and a 44-acre site at Boston Spa, the British Library might seem like the ideal place to socially distance. However, with the London basement stores running as deep as the Victoria line tube and a 1.6km network of airport-style conveyor belts, we still rely on substantial numbers of dedicated staff to get collection items from the Basements to the Reading Rooms.
To make sure our staff can work safely we will be working in bubbles, and staggering start and finish times so their journeys to work – many of which rely on public transport – can be made outside peak times. Because a number of colleagues are shielding or have caring responsibilities, we’ve also adapted our opening hours to accommodate a reduced workforce.
We can’t wait for the buzz of the Library to return and to welcome as many of you back as possible, but it has to be safe for everyone. So what can Readers expect when they return to the Reading Rooms?
We will initially operate on reduced opening hours and limited capacity, which we hope to extend over time, and you will have to pre-book desks and pre-order collection items. We have adapted our Box Office system to process Reading Room bookings, and have limited the number and length of sessions that can be booked to allow as many Readers as possible a slot in the Reading Rooms. Although our Reading Rooms are now fully booked for the first week, new tickets will be released every Thursday at 11.00.
To adhere to social distancing guidelines we have adapted the Reading Rooms by installing new signage and floor markings to introduce one-way flows of users. This inevitably affects how many people – staff and users – can be in our spaces at any one time, and we’ll be carefully monitoring this as we reopen. Screens have been installed at service points to protect staff and users, and we’ll be providing visors to staff to enable those hard of hearing lip read. All this has taken a number of staff working behind the scenes to order equipment and install it safely in our Grade I listed building ready for reopening.
We’re asking you to wear a face covering while you’re in the Library, although it’s okay to take it off once you’re working at your desk in the Reading Room, or eating and drinking in the café. We’ll be monitoring how these measures work to make sure we’re keeping everyone safe, and may need to adjust our processes as guidance changes.
In the Reading Rooms, we’re allocating desks to keep a safe distance between Readers in line with social distancing guidelines. We appreciate it might be frustrating to not be able to sit in your usual spot (2185 in Humanities 1, anyone?) and to see empty seats, but we won’t be able to reassign desks for the moment.
Seeing you poring over collection items is our favourite thing, and we’ve been working really hard to provide access to as much of the collection as possible when we reopen. Some large format items like maps can’t be viewed in the Reading Rooms we’re opening because they’re too big for the desks, and some items need invigilation we can’t provide at the moment. We’ll announce more details about when these collections – and more Reading Rooms – will be available.
We realise this is going to be a little strange for everyone so we really appreciate your patience while we all adjust to doing things differently. Please bear with us as we continue to monitor the latest guidance, review the measures we have put in place and incorporate any feedback we receive.
Whether you need to continue your vital research, delve into our business databases or retrieve an article in an old newspaper, we can’t wait to see you back here.
Leathea Lee, Reading Rooms Operations Manager