british museum reading room by eneas

If you’re an academic, scholar or bibliophile you no doubt recognize the above picture instantly. It’s one of the most famous libraries in the world, and has housed some of the greatest literary treasures in the history of the English language, or other languages for that matter. This is the Reading Room of the British Museum, the sort of central hub around which the most important and magnificent cultural/historical space in the former British Empire revolved. It is literally in the center of the refurbished Museum which now has a large ring-shaped gallery surrounding the circular Reading Room.

The Reading Room is a work of art and an artifact of history as well as a scholarly space. It was constructed between 1854 and 1857 in what used to be a circular courtyard space inside the British Museum, which at that time also housed the British Library. When the Library fathers realized they needed a bigger reading room, they tapped veteran architect Sidney Smirke to design something grand. Incidentally, Smirke had already designed a hospital, the Bethlem Royal, which eventually became the Imperial War Museum. The dome was made of papier-mâché and was modeled on the dome of the Pantheon in Rome. Once opened to the public in 1857, the Reading Room attracted a steady stream of visitors, among whom were the leading thinkers of the Victorian era and beyond, including George Orwell, Virginia Woolf and H.G. Wells. We know because in those days you had to register and have a ticket to do research in the Reading Room. Interestingly, among the old tickets are those of four great revolutionaries in world history: Karl Marx, Sun Yat-Sen, Vladimir Lenin and Mahatma Gandhi.

The Reading Room also features in my own work. In my comic novel Beowulf is Boring, written in 2009, the Reading Room is where the Devil holds a group of kids hostage while I (I’m a character in the story) have to rewrite the Anglo-Saxon legend Beowulf to not be so boring. In fact the original Beowulf manuscript dating from the Middle Ages used to be displayed in the Reading Room, and that manuscript is now digitized for all to see online–here is the link. A Faustian bargain that ends in the Reading Room is also the plot of Max Beerbohm’s 1916 short story “Enoch Soames.”

Sadly, the Reading Room was closed in 2013 while the British Museum decides exactly what to do with it. I hope it can be reopened to the public and to scholars to come work here and consult some of the greatest books ever written, as they have for over 150 years. Libraries are the key to civilization.

This photo is by Wikimedia Commons user Eneas and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.