In films libraries are places of repressed lust, where battleaxes shush recalcitrant chatterers and plain young women remove spectacles to cries of "Oh my god, you're beautiful!" Why doesn't this work for men? Is it because the specs hide the bags under their eyes, or the wrinkles that they imagine are attractive on them but not on women? But I digress - there is plenty of lust in libraries, some of it thwarted. Sathnam Sanghera in The Times:
All libraries are, of course, petri dishes of simmering lust, but the [British Library] is extreme: its walls contain more erotic pressure than an oil rig, a North Sea fishing trawler and several series of Mad Men combined. And it turns out that I’m not alone in thinking so. In 2005, Olivia Stewart-Liberty reported in The Spectator that “the whole building sighs with hothouse groans, which swell and fade to muffle other sounds”; in 2006 a gay website exposed the British Library as a cottaging ground and the regular BL readers who I’ve discussed it with concur.
Not that we can agree as to why. Explanations put forward include: the intrinsic erotic appeal of women in pencil skirts, stockings and Sarah Palin spectacles telling you off; the intrinsic filthiness of all librarians (after all, Casanova was one); the enforced silence and bookish atmosphere, which conspire to make you want to do something loud and physical in response; the safety (the theory goes that people feel free to flirt without feeling obliged to take things farther); the presence of books, which after all, are intrinsically sexy and have been connected to seduction for hundreds of years; the unexpected corners.
Though, personally, my preferred explanation is the silence. Let’s face it, human beings are animals, there is potential for sexual tension everywhere, even in parts of West Bromwich, but normally people’s attractiveness is counteracted by the noises that they make — the grunts, groans and conversation that might reveal they are married, stupid, have an unattractive accent, an obnoxious personality or, very simply, do not fancy you in return. But when everyone is sitting around in silence, you can project what you like on to them and everyone remains a sexual possibility. And the thing that convinced me of this theory is an anecdote a regular reader recently told me about the time she spent working in the Humanities 2 reading room.
A couple of weeks into it she noticed that the same man was sitting near her. It’s not something that would normally have registered, she says, but (a) this man bore a passing resemblance to Daniel Craig, and (b) she had been single for two years and, before she knew it, for the first time in her life, she had become infatuated. An infatuation she assumed was reciprocated because whenever she sat somewhere other than her normal seat, this bloke would seem to move and sit near her.
This went on for months and eventually, one Wednesday morning, when he was sitting right next to her, the inevitable happened: he passed her a folded note. And, for a moment, time seemed to come to a standstill. As she opened it, her heart was beating so loudly she thought that Tristram Hunt himself would storm over and tell her to be quiet. Blushing, feeling that her life would never be the same again, she read the words that had been scrawled in pencil.
They said: “Excuse me, but could you stop sniffing so loudly, please?” She’s been working in another part of the library since, facing a blank wall. And if I go back to “work” in the British Library, I’ll probably do the same.
If the silence gets too much, tourists are invited to try out the famous echo.