I don't know about you, but I hold my breath when I walk into a great library. An old library. They seem like sacred spaces. Breathless, soundless, musky spaces. Pages turn, people rub their eyes, pencils scratch.
I remember the first time I visited London I was too scared - really, petrified - to go near the British Museum Reading Room (as it was then). It seemed a world apart, as if, had I walked in, I should be asked to leave immediately. I probably would have been, too.
I feel that same sense even now, when hesitating on the steps of some hallowed hall somewhere in the world. I never feel like that about cathedrals or cemeteries. Sometimes I simply can't go in, or it takes a few stern words to myself to get me through the door.
My mother rang a few months ago to say she'd finally gone to have a peek at the renovated State Library of Victoria, and that she'd forgiven Jeff Kennett everything, because he'd funded the building restoration.
("Settle down," I said. "Well, maybe not everything," she agreed.) But it does look spectacular.
Even there, under that familiar dome, I can't actually quite believe I'm allowed in; that I can take down a volume of Captain Cook's journals from the shelf (a facsimile edition, of course) and rest it on those fine mahogany desks and turn pages like a person to the manner born.
It's not surprising, I suppose. Even apart from the old Port Melbourne girl within who tugs at my sleeve and says, "Our kind's not allowed in there", those great Victorian domed spaces still emanate a sense of seclusion - and exclusion.
In the British Museum Reading Room, you had to get a Reader's Pass. Say, for example, you happened to be Lenin or Marx, Dickens or George Bernard Shaw, or perhaps Virginia Woolf: you applied for a pass and if approved (they all scraped through, although Lenin used a pseudonym) you could use the Reading Room to your heart's content.
You still have to get a pass, but now you can order one online.
And for those who find it difficult to breathe at such high altitudes, you can also peek into the world's great library rooms online, here. Heavy breathing. It's purely bookish porn, glorious stuff.
(Link viaLeaf Salon)