In which there is nearly a murder in the library.

Printed 22/04/09.

If Emily Post were still writing today, I’d want her to write a guide to Modern Library Etiquette. It’s an issue that needs addressing.

The library, you’d think, would be one of the last refuges of politeness left in the world – they’re nice, quiet places for people who wear comfortable shoes and say ‘ruddy’, are they not? During my three years as a local library assistant, the most scandalous behaviour I encountered was somebody tearing the crossword out of Country Life magazine. To this day, Goring residents probably still tremble at the legend of the mystery Library Ripper.

But everything changes once you move into the realms of the academic library. And of course I mean ‘move into’ literally, this being exam season and my finals hovering overhead like the Grim Reaper in a Shakespearean ruff. We know the property market’s current state is a gift for first time buyers – but while the articles are full of one-bed flats in Bromley for £200 000, nobody’s hit on the rent-free housing solution that is a desk, chair and 24-hour access to all the feminist Virgina Woolf criticism one could ever wish to read. Desk living might not be for everyone, but for many beleaguered undergraduates it is proving the minimalist lifestyle of choice.

Personally preferring a more embellished style of surroundings, I have furnished my desk with some special touches. Firstly, a decorative cross-stitched picture bearing the words “2:1 or not 2:1, that is the question” for motivational purposes. A stuffed shrew on a plinth, to remind myself what nature looks like (and that things could always be worse). Pro-plus tablets are the smarter choice than coffee, entailing neither the need to leave your desk nor the mild laxative effects of three double lattes - though the truly savvy student just injects the caffeine directly into their eyeballs to save time.

A blanket and small air conditioning unit are both musts, for all seasoned desk-dwellers know that libraries are capable only of being furnaces or fridges, nothing in between. A well-stocked supply of Kleenex adds a homey, rustic charm, and after use can double up as missiles to throw at anyone deserving.

Anyone deserving = People who look too calm. People who look too stressed. People who feel the need to do a great humphing sigh with every page they turn. People whose sole aim in life is to let the world know just how much work they’ve done through the means of minute-by-minute facebook status updates. People who chew loudly. People who glare at you when you chew loudly.

People who clearly hire someone, maybe the butler, to turn up at the crack of dawn, claim the best desk by throwing their stuff all over it, then disappear until four in the afternoon while other people have to work sitting in the stairwell (who said Germans and sun loungers? Not me…). People who say anything, ANYTHING, about the recession meaning that degree or no degree, we’re all going to be working in jobs requiring hairnets.

So the library is a minefield of potential etiquette issues, albeit in part because when your sole activity all day is trying to work out who dies in Coriolanus, noticing etiquette issues is as alluring a distraction as you could wish. Yesterday I sat for a full 40 minutes listening to a one-man snot factory on the other side of my little desk partition, giving a full rendition of the Blue Danube with the sinus orchestra. And it took me 40 minutes to debate whether giving him a tissue would be a) a highly offensive gaffe, clearly saying “shut up, you disgusting mucus machine. Why can’t your antibodies work as hard as you are?” or b) a kindly, generous act of human solidarity, perhaps leading me forever to be thought of as some kind of library angel.

In the end I plumped for b), and felt good to have restored peace to library land for a little while. Unfortunately though, without the tissue I had nothing to throw at all the deserving targets, so I had to release the tension by doing the Country Life crossword.