Once a week I go to the British Library to work on some of the boring bookish part of my research. Having access to a grand library like this, with every book ever published in the English language, with free wi-fi and power outlets at every desk, with no time limits… it’s one of the big privileges I’ve discovered about living in this town called London.
To my slight annoyance, they have very strict rules about what can or cannot be taken into the reading rooms. No pens, for example, only pencils – apparently they’ve had trouble with library users writing in the books. No bags other than the clear plastic bags they provide. No jackets. And so on and so forth.
One rule that is not written on the signs but clearly imparted to the security staff who check what enters and even more carefully check what leaves (including the inside of laptops – why this particular caution I’m not entirely sure I understand)… is that no creams or lotions are allowed. I can see their rationale, but if they’re worried about creams or lotions they should make that clear to library users, not just the security guards. What is even more disturbing is that, apparently, lip balm is now considered a cream or lotion. I am currently highly lip balm dependent, for medical reasons, and barely last half an hour before grabbing a smear or the stuff. So, of course, I take a good stock of lip balm with me to the library.
Yesterday, I spent five hours at the library, phone, laptop, books, lip balms and all. No pens. No bags. No jacket. Ten minutes before I was scheduled to leave, the security guard for the reading room walked up to me (abandoning his post to do so) and told me I wasn’t allowed to have the lip balm in the library and he had to confiscate it.
I freaked out. My lip balm has become like a comfort blanket or a teddy to me. The thought of being separated from that little tub of bucal grease terrifies me. And so I put up a fuss. I told him I didn’t know. I told him I was only staying for 10 more minutes anyway. I pointed out that I’d been in the library for 5 hours, and I came every week, and no one had ever said anything before. I wanted to point out that my lip balm could easily be concealed in my pocket, if only I’d known I should conceal it, but I withheld that temptation to cheekiness.
He suggested I abandon my computer and phone to go use the lip balm outside of the reading room. This didn’t seem like very good advice coming from a security guard.
Since he was unmovable (and considering the noise we were making, in a library), and I was leaving in 10 minutes anyway, I let him take it and promise to return it to me upon my departure from the library. Then I turned back to the highly theoretical and philosophical academic treatise on fiction as a research methodology and found that not only had I lost my ability to concentrate on content that was difficult to comprehend even when I was full focused, but I could barely see the words through my tears.
So that book was clearly lost on me. I packed up and walked out. He gave me my lip balm back. I told him that he was very mean and next time could he be just a little bit considerate? He tried to explain to me the rationale behind the ban on creams (which I tried to repeatedly point out did not include lip balm). That made sense to me, it was fair enough. It seemed silly but I got it. What I didn’t get was how he could confiscate with no warning something I needed for medical purposes. He asked me why I hadn’t gotten a letter of dispensation from the Library manager, if it was for medical reasons? Well, if I’d only known…
My tears mounting and my anger surging throughout this conversation, it was a relief when a nice older woman, a colleague of his, walked in. She gave me tissues and suggested I speak with a manager and offered to call him (an offer I turned down because I was now running late). She apologised for her colleague’s rudeness.
Afterwards, I realised it was not his fault. He was given a different set of rules from me and from his perspective I was being blatantly rebellious. Plus, for him to have singled me out probably meant that one of the librarians had seen me with the lip balm but been to timid to confront me directly and so had called the security guard to do her dirty work for her.
Even so, the British Library should have the same set of rules for everyone. Either allow lip balm, or make clear that lip balm is not allowed.
Now… what does this have to do with hope? As indignant as I may feel, as justified as I may believe I was in my actions, I most certainly overreacted.
And I chalk that up to something in my own heart needing to get out.
Perhaps the fact that yesterday was a dark day for Syria, perhaps in that I am still struggling to find my place in this new London life, perhaps in a sense that my own sense of justice in this minor-minor-minor of situations is somehow symbolic of what my sense of justice in the big things should be.