Libraries are sexy

I continue to spend my days at the British Library. I hope they don’t mind, but I now think of it as my office. I love it here. It’s like being an exile on an island of literacy and good manners. Except the tweedy, hushed, respectful exterior masks crime and seediness. Today we made the news. Oh yes we did. This big, boring old library full of books and old men and students and laptops! A press release was left on every desk in the reading rooms, to keep us all in the loop. It said:

Mr Farhad Hakimzadeh, a former British Library Reader, is due to appear at Wood Green Court today (Friday 21 November). Hakimzadeh has pleaded guilty to ten counts of theft from the Library, and asked for further charges to be taken into account. He has also admitted theft from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Sentencing in this case is expected later today and you may have seen coverage of the case in this morning’s press.

I might have flicked past this story in the past, but not now that I am a British Library Reader! (I always think of the Bill Hicks line: “Looks like we got ourselves a reader!”) Mr Hakimzadeh “used considerable skill, deceit and determination” to remove pages, plates (not that kind) and maps from collection items. We’re not just talking pages from a Dan Brown novel, these were mainly 16th, 17th and 18th century books on West European engagement with Mesopotamia, Persia and the Mughal empire. With the precision of a surgeon, he scalpeled the pages out very close to the spine, so that their absence was undetectable to the naked eye.

The CEO of the library said, “We are committed to making our collections available in the interests of scholarship and research, and to do this an element of trust is necessary. Hakimzadeh fundamentally betrayed this trust.” Fucker. The library’s press release is suitably sober. The Guardian went big on the story and made much of the fact that the dirty, rotten scoundrel was a “Harvard-educated businessman, publisher and intellectual.” Apparently, he defaced 150 books, and caused 400 grand’s worth of damage – which is in itself an imperfect figure as many of the books are literally irreplaceable, and are thus beyond costing up. Police raided his home in Knightsbridge and found some of the pages just stuck inside books he already owned. He wasn’t flogging them on the black market, he just seems to have wanted them.

Having come in and out of the reading rooms like I own them for a few weeks now, I am at a loss as to how the evil “tome raider” (not my joke) managed it. I myself came up against security this very Wednesday. There are strict rules about what you may and may not bring in: no bags, no coats, no umbrellas, no food, no flasks, no chewing gum, no cameras, no sharp implements, no pens or highlighters … it looks like it would be nigh-on impossible to get entire pages or plates (not that kind) or maps out of here. You have to carry your laptop and admissable items in a supplied, transparent British Library plastic bag. On Wednesday, I had planned to post my Dad’s birthday card in King’s Cross on my way to the office. I couldn’t see a post box so I asked in the Library. The man told me there was a post box in the basement. I took my card there and saw that the only collection was at 5pm, so I decided instead to keep the card with me and post it somewhere with an earlier collection at lunchtime. I popped it in my supplied, transparent plastic bag and went into the reading room.

On my way out for a screen-break, I took the card with me, intending to take it to my locker and put it in my other bag. However, the security guard stopped me as I attempted to gaily skip past him. He asked to look at the envelope. I told him it was a birthday card for my dad. He told me that it was “policy” to open any sealed envelope being taken out of the reading rooms. (I understand why – I could have been sending folded-up pages or plates or maps to my dad – the perfect crime.) I groaned audibly, and felt really stupid for taking it in there without thinking. He sort of shook and felt the envelope, and said, “In this instance I am going to use my discretion and not open it.” This was very decent of him. I took my card and left, feeling all hot and guilty, even though I hadn’t done anything wrong. I am not very good at breaking rules. It doesn’t really suit me.

Anyway, that’s the kind of excitement you get up here in the British Library. What a life I lead.

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