Last week, I promised you a post on the British Library. Unfortunately, I am going to have to break my promise (it won’t be the first time, nor the last time I do), but I swear this time it’s worth it.
Last Friday, my classmates and I got the opportunity to visit the Wellcome Library and I just had to tell you about this beautiful and interesting space. As this library is huge, I want to focus on two different sections: the Reading Room and the Blackwell’s bookstore.
The reading room is without a doubt the most spectacular reading space I have ever seen. It has everything to make you want to read all day: pleasant lighting, comfy chairs, pillows that you can lounge on and a great selection of books. Although a lot of the Wellcome collection centres around the field of medicine, there is a great variety of selection in the books you will find there. But do not venture into this room with a specific book in mind because chances are you won’t find it. Books are arranged in ‘pods’ divided around different themes, such as faith, breath, travel… And although some associations are evident (Travels by Marco Polo is not so surprisingly in the travel section), other combinations are a bit more enigmatic (try The Wizard of Oz in faith for example).
Although I was puzzled by the distribution of the books at first, it forced me to look at how we categorise books in general and how differently the process could go. In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel writes; “every library tyrannizes the act of reading, and forces the reader – the curious reader, the alert reader – to rescue the book from the Category to which it has been condemned.”¹ Saying a novel is fiction or humour, that it talks about art or cooking, does not tell you much about the substance of the work. Therefore, arranging books by theme, however obscure they might seem, allows the reader to look at the work in a different light and maybe find appeal in a book that he or she would have never picked up if it was in the ‘Gardening’ section of a regular library.
At this point, it seems important to mention that the Reading Room contains much more than books. There are different interactive activities distributed around the pods, as well as artwork, sculptures, old medical instruments and a slice of a dead person. You don’t believe me? I have photo evidence:
To be honest, the first time I walked past this ‘thing’ (not sure how to define it), I didn’t even realise what it was because there was no way such a morbid object could be found in such a relaxing atmosphere. However, the Reading Room is made of multiple contrasts and complexities that grab your attention and make you truly stop and think about what you are looking at. I found this room to be stimulating in a very understated way and I could see that other people shared my enthusiasm: some were reading on the chairs, others were looking at books and smiling at the little comments that people had left in them on the library bookmarks. A couple was having a quiet conversation on the pillows while a girl was playing with an old stethoscope.
To conclude before I go on and on about how lovely it is, the Wellcome Library Reading Room is much more than a reading space; it is a museum, a community, a playroom and probably what your nan’s living room felt like when you were five.
The library bookstore also has its share of surprises. Much like the Reading Room, the books are arranged in a very unusual way. Unlike Waterstones and its rigid categories, a book about dogs in jumpers sits opposite one about skulls and the stress relieving colouring books are found on a table next to various works about diseases. Strangely, these books do not clash but all complement each other. What I enjoyed about this eclectic distribution was that I found myself reaching for books that I’d never thought I’d be interested in.
When I go to a regular bookstore, I often go to the same sections and completely bypass others but at Blackwell’s, I was forced to draw my eyes on books about medicine, self-help, geography… and they all seemed appealing to me. It was also interesting to look at the reaction of people around me. You could see that they were taken aback by what seemed to be organisational chaos, but after a few minutes, they felt more comfortable and started picking up the books, no matter how different they were.
At the entrance of the library, there is a sculpture of this man hanging upside down from the ceiling. I noticed it when I was about to leave and I thought it was a great way to conclude the experience because, as cheesy as it may sound, the Wellcome Library will turn your idea of what a reading space and bookstore should be like upside down.
Finally, if I haven’t convinced you yet, you should also check out the Wellcome Library’s beautiful architecture.
If you would like more information on the library, do visit the website: wellcomelibrary.org
¹ Manguel, A. (1997) A History of Reading. London: Flamingo.