British Museum Reading Room

British Museum Reading Room

If the heart of Bloomsbury is the British Museum, then the British Museum Reading Room was until recently at the very heart of its heart. I used to go there in the 1980s, when this central domed chamber (only 2ft less in diameter than the Roman Pantheon) still housed the British Library.

Walking over from Hanover Square after work, I would be seated by 6.30pm, bracing myself against the Reading Room’s drowsy embrace: I had quotations to check! I don’t remember any overhead lighting except from the 20 windows around the dome (papier-mâché, painted sky blue) and the glazed area at its apex. As daylight faded and the ranks of readers began to thin out, only the lamps of those still at their desks remained lit, individual yellow pools in this toasty twilight.

Of course, when the Reading Room first opened in 1857, this evening shift would have been impossible. Then, there could be no artificial light at all, neither gas nor candlelight, because of the fire risk. Then, as soon as dusk fell, or even before that if there was a peasouper outside, the readers were all packed off home.

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