Library antagonisms

Our latest guest blog comes from Charlie, a first-year PhD student in the Architecture by Design program at the University of Edinburgh.  He is studying the architecture of prisons and the potential for such architecture to directly exert moral influence upon inmates.  And he is tired of hearing references to Foucault.

I went to the National Library of Scotland to read up on prisons, and I must say, I learned a great deal through my visit:

I didn’t want to go the the National Library.  It’s outside of my routine; it’s apart from what is familiar to me; it’s a place where I’m on edge because I don’t know the the rules and conventions and expectations.  But I had to go there, because my research demanded it.

Before I went, I had a casual talk with my classmate who often works there.  He began to give me the lowdown, and it sounded more complicated and particularized than I had been anticipating.  I had already replaced the pens in my backpack with pencils, but my friend was explaining about details I had not even suspected, like paid storage lockers and the unavailability of water.  I began feeling anxious with the realization that the operations of this place are even more rigidly regulated than I had suspected.

I arrived at the library confused; everyone seemed to know exactly what they were doing—everyone except me.  I was directed first to the storage locker room in which I, being unfamiliar with such deposit-requiring locks, struggled to get myself set up.  Flustered with embarrassment and a sense of helplessness, I solicited the assistance of a stranger.  After clumsily getting my things stored (and yet not confident that I was bringing along all of the things I actually needed), I proceeded to the reading rooms upstairs.

The comedy of errors proceeded, but it was void of humor for me.  With wrong turns at every possible step, I eventually reach the circulation desk, from which I retrieved the twelve-page book I had requested.  Subtle feelings of self-consciousness intensified as I carried my comically small book into the reading room itself; it must have been evident to anyone watching that I was the most green of national library patrons.  I began to settle into a desk but had to move when I saw a “computer free desk” sign upon it.  I couldn’t make sense of why there were so many unnecessary rules and regulations!  I’d been told photography with a phone was acceptable but with a camera was not.  What’s the difference?  I seemed to be surrounded by a cohort of librarians all fiercely enforcing rules which they couldn’t possibly explain or justify.

Finally settled into a desk, I tried to launch into my work, but I was endlessly distracted—distracted first of all by my own thoughts.  Were these miserable circumstances going to be my new life?  How much more of my research would confine me to these this difficult working context?  What if the next book I check out is far longer than this twelve-page shrimp in my hand—would my bladder hold that long?  How do I secure my computer when I make a run to the restroom?  Feelings of insecurity began to creep in as I dwelled on the vulnerability of my brand new laptop, which normally never ventures beyond my flat or my studio.

And as I worried about these things, a new irritant presented itself.  The man at the desk behind me was sitting in a remarkably squeaky chair and he would not stop fidgeting!  What was his problem?!  My general state of discomfort was compounded by each and every additional squeak that came from his chair.  I felt those familiar little bubbles begin rising through my brain as my rage slowly came to a boil.  I couldn’t focus—I wasn’t getting any work done.  Was I going to have to leave this place having accomplished nothing?  And the consequences of that were obvious—I’d only have to return again later!  But how could I get anything done when every aspect of the library seem designed to stop me from doing so??

Charlie - library_image1

Eventually, with a Herculean effort to focus, I managed to complete my reading—the whole measly twelve pages.  As I packed up my few things, I just felt bad about myself.  Other researchers were accomplishing great things with their morning, making huge strides in their work, but here I was just wasting time, watching my work week slip away from me and feeling unable to do anything about it.  I returned the book to the circulation desk and petitioned the librarian to answer some of my lingering questions about library protocol; at least now I knew how this place worked.

Or so I thought.  As I fumbled around for my library card to scan my way through the automated exit gates, the staff member at the adjoining desk stopped me to search my things.  What!?  Search me?!?  Now I had the distinct pleasure of being the object of distrust, and for no fault of my own.  I stood dumbfounded as the guard flipped through my notebook and opened up my laptop.  My privacy cast aside, I had no choice but to be obsequious to this intrusion of authority.  Now I was angry again.  The staff-person shooed me along as soon as the ridiculous examination was complete.  And what was the point?  As if they might have stopped me from sneaking a single page of a book out of that library; for all they knew I might have spent the entirety of my study time quietly destroying books in a lonely corner of the reading room!

The security seemed a farce and an offensive one at that.  This very institution was unavoidably vulnerable; it was founded upon my cooperation and good behavior, and yet the staff had the gumption to pretend as though it were not so.  This rigidity of security and premise of distrust only made me want to justify them by my own deviance and duplicity.  I would never have thought of trying to sneak a book out of that library, until the obnoxious search procedure presented itself to me as a challenge—a challenge posed by someone who regarded me as an opponent of sorts.  I thought to myself, the next time I study there, I want to set up my computer on a “computer free” desk, simply out of spite.  The ubiquity and tightness of rules throughout that place inspired in me a desire to push back and to resist.  If they were going to make my day more stressful and unproductive, how much more so could I make theirs?

And as I walked out of the library and back to my studio, I began to realize just how much I had learned about prisoners, during my visit to the library to read about prisons.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at or connect with the blog on Twitter

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