Nothing is quite as exciting as having a new library to explore, and I’ve been granted access to some good ones of late – Chawton House Library, a women’s studies centre set in a house which once belonged to Jane Austen’s richer brother; the high shelves and Victorian stepladders of York Minster Library; dozens of beautiful old Carnegie Libraries from Clitheroe to Cathays; even the high Medieval surroundings of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, thanks to a Postgraduate Studentship and the fact my supervisor emailed ahead. Yet despite all their glorious architecture, surroundings, and selection, none of them have usurped that place in my heart reserved for the drab concrete outlines of Cardiff University’s Arts and Social Sciences Library, where I now have a small office to myself.
When I first applied for a study carrel I suspected that it was a word entirely invented by librarians – indeed, who better to do so? – but I made recourse to the OED and discovered that it is precisely the appropriate word for what it is – a small desk for private study within a library. Cardiff University’s Arts and Social Sciences Library boasts a row of eight on their second floor, which are given to MA and PhD students on 3-month rotas. Bute library may have the spiral staircases and the Science library the Victorian neo-classical flourishes – at least, before they stuck an entire unnecessary floor right through the middle of it – but none of them have anything so useful as the study carrels. At first glance, they maybe rather poky and predominantly brown, with a view of the Lidl car park, but such an opinion is sole preserve of the philistine who has not grasped the delight of having one’s own private space in the midst of a library. Safe behind my yale lock, I can actually stack my books in there without fear of some overzealous librarian returning them to shelf, leave my laptop or phone on the desk without fear that anyone might nick it and best of all, I can sit on the floor, or put my feet up on the desk, or roll into the footwell and doze off without anyone looking at me strangely. The view may not be the most sublime in existence, but mediated by the swaying birches and their million new leaves, it’s rather pleasant. Even then, it doesn’t take a lot of craning before I achieve a sightline across the thousand chimney tops of Cathays stretching out towards the Rhymney Ridgeway.
Cardiff University gave me access to my first university library, and after months spent scouring the secondhand bookshops of Winchester to build a poetry collection, I can still remember the thrill of discovering that they had collections by almost any author I could think of. I’d arrive, tap ‘Thomas Gray’ or ‘Gerald Manley Hopkins’ into the search engine, memorise the local reference and dash upstairs, chanting ‘PR4803.H44.A16.F80’ under my breath and hoping I’d get there before the rush. I often got my digits muddled up, but surprisingly enough, there’s yet to be a run on the literature shelves. The closest thing to it is when the first year essay titles are announced, and the shelves of Beowulf and Chaucer criticism empty as if by magic.
For there’s still magic among these dusty shelves, even in a warm day in May. Since my first days at Cardiff, I’ve studied in places as diverse as the British Library and the Bodleian at Oxford. Even York University library had more power sockets, comfier seats, continuous 24 hour access and a better DVD collection. I still keep up my self-initiated tradition of jogging up the stairs, however, and there’s still nothing I like better than when a likely tome catches my eye mid-stride, and I have to take it out and flick through it until the original book I was searching for is quite forgotten. Having my own little piece of it – however temporarily – is like having my own box at the theatre. Sheer class.