A tale from the British Library

Reading The Book Archeologist‘s latest post, I was reminded of a moment I had in the British Library this summer that I found strangely wonderful.  (Also, reading that post made me want to go back to school and go to the University of Texas iSchool for Archives and Preservation!  How cool do those classes sound?!)  Anyway, the picture at the top of her post shows a document or book tied up in library string and is captioned “Learning to tie library knots.”  It reminded me of all the 19th century and early 20th century editions of medieval poetry that I was using this summer at the British Library, many of which were falling apart from years of use and from the generally fragile nature of books with highly acidic paper. When they weren’t in acid-free cases, they were tied with string.

Apparently, there is a right way and a wrong way to tie this string. (There are probably many right ways, I’m sure, as well as many more wrong ways.)  I found this out when I went to collect a book and the staff member who retrieved it for me tsk-tsked whoever had previously tied the string on the book and the fact that they had used whatever “bits and bobs” of extra string had been lying around (I do think there were about three different strings knotted together). While I waited, he then cut new string and tied the book up properly before giving it to me. I suppose other people might have gotten impatient (why not wait until I’d returned the book, after all?), but I was fascinated with the whole process, which he also narrated in mumbling monologue that was more talking to himself than to me, but which provided an amusing narrative of gentle chiding of unseen co-workers throughout (with a little of the process thrown in).

I watched as first he ‘measured’ the string against the width, length, and depth of the book, multiplying by how many times it had to go around the book, and adding just enough extra at the end for tying a small bow.  Then, after cutting the string, he wrapped it lengthwise around the book, twisting the two ends around each other where they met and turning them perpendicular to begin wrapping them around the width.  Then, very gently, he turned the book over. His gentleness suggested someone who was holding a baby bird more than a book — so much so, that I wouldn’t have been surprised had he started cooing soothing words to the battered book. Then, having turned the book over, he threaded one end of the string under the lengthwise string already wrapped around the book. As he did, he said something like “and under,” to reinforce one of the things that had been wrong with the previous tie. Given his other muttering — not to mention the under-the-breath nature of it all — I don’t think this was particularly intended as a lesson for me, but I was learning nevertheless.  Anyway, he then tied a neat little knot (or maybe it was a bow) with the two width-wise ends, just to one side of the lengthwise string. (Some librarians, I know, wrap the bow around the string perpendicular to it — he did not.) Having finished the task, he said “There — all sorted!” and turned his eyes up at me for the first time in minutes, handed me the book, and said, “There you are.” I don’t know what was so hypnotic to me about watching this, but I really was in a kind of relaxed but focused state, watching with as much intensity as he gave this otherwise simple task.  And I felt his little moment of triumph at the end, too, and shared it with him.

I think the fact that I waited so patiently through all of this — and smiled when he said “all sorted!” and handed it to me — may have surprised him, because he seemed delighted by my response and grinned back. I can imagine that in the general reading rooms (and even in the more specialized ones like manuscripts and rare books) they get a lot of impatient, the-customer-is-always-right types. But I know it’s all about the books. Or at least I didn’t mind those few moments in which a book’s preservation came first. And anyway, I learned the proper BL way to tie library knots!

3 thoughts on “A tale from the British Library

  1. What an absolutely delightful story! I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of learning to tie library knots – I hadn’t realised before how much depends on a good, secure knot or that there was one that was special to librarians. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this and linking to my blog! I’m excited to read through yours and get to know another medievalist. 😀

  2. Highly Eccentric — Well, yes, but at least I knew how to tie it properly again!

    L — I only just discovered your blog, as well, and looking forward to more! (And the ‘real life’ me just ‘circled’ you on G+. Yeah, that was me.)

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