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Thinking station

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

National Library, Beijing, as shot by Will Pryce

National Library, Beijing
National Library, Beijing Credit: Will Pryce

Will Pryce starts with an anecdote from his student days – of not getting any joy from the Royal College of Art Library and having to decamp to the then Round Reading Room of the British Library, which was still in use within the British Museum. Left on the table next to his was ‘Last Letters from Stalingrad’; and as one is inclined, he tells me, to find the books of others’ more interesting than your own, he spent his day absorbed in the last missives home of Hitler’s doomed 6th Army at the hands of the ‘encircling Bolsheviks’. Only after he’d finished and looked around did it dawn on him that Marx had sat in the same place a century before and written Das Kapital – and a link in time was made bet­ween those terrified soldiers, Communism, and himself. ‘It made me think that libraries contain books, that books contain ideas and that sometimes ideas can be dangerous.’

Given that, his choice of China’s National Library in Beijing seems obvious – and not only because of its ‘highly dramatic’ central reading room. With its 60m span, it embodies all the traditional, lofty ideals of centralised knowledge but here blown up to an industrial scale. Pryce was fascinated by the exquisite polarisation being made evident; the scale increasing by an order of magnitude, but the basic denominator, the book, still just a little larger than a human hand. 

It’s a public library on the face of it, he muses, save for being subject to the censorship of another state, also inspired by Marx. Students may well be procrastinating here, but they won’t be doing it via Google or Facebook. That said, the common sense of collective industry engendered in the world’s ­libraries is also felt here. And he’s optimistic for the future: ‘What stops great collections from turning into Starbucks-style browsing is the fact that, if your research goes in a new direction, you can leave your seat, go to a shelf, and immediately seek it out.’

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