Memories of SOAS library: better late than never


Almost a decade ago, when the SOAS Library Transformation Project to modernise and refurbish the library was nearing completion, we asked alumni to send in memories of what SOAS Library had meant to them.  The request prompted nostalgic accounts from graduates worldwide.

For one former student, it triggered thoughts about first joining. Another remembered a certain smell.  A couple of PhD students recounted how its resources – it is one of the UK’s five National Research Libraries – had been invaluable to their research, both at the time but also unexpectedly at a later date.  One student remembered the archaic borrowing system pre-1960s.  The last words, however, are given to the graduate that sums up for all of its users, the awe and humility that such a vast collection inspires.

Thank you to the alumni that took the time, almost a decade ago now, to reply.  What follows is a composite; you have each been credited at the end by your first name – you will know who you are!

October 1990: Palms sweating as I made my way through the entrance of the vastness known as SOAS Library. The beads of sweat on my forehead seemed to grow as I ventured further into the dark chasm of the unknown, only to find myself staring at the endless sections of books and manuscripts.

It was as if I’d entered another world, enchanting and mystical. Classical Arabic in one corner; ancient Sanskrit propping up another. This was my world for the next three years and I revelled in the notion that I would be surrounded by such words of wisdom and history.

The physical impact of the library was felt immediately on entering the carpeted foyer after passing through the turnstiles – it became a near soundless zone. Sight was enhanced by the harsh neon lighting. One’s sense of smell came to the fore in several areas of the library. Including from the round green soap dispensers in the ladies’ loo which emitted a culture all of their own!

The librarians themselves operated from behind a counter where you requested books or, if they were burrowing away in the stacks, left you to fill in slips of paper with titles you wanted.  On the first floor, there was an index card system encased in wooden cabinets – from here you could look down into the main reading room. Rows of individual booths with reading lights provided the structural necessities for students.

The area I most enjoyed was the catalogue drawer. I would spend hours looking for titles rummaging through the cards; opening the wooden drawers as if I was a child anticipating a wonderful surprise.

The first photograph of a student taken in the library with a floral sari was me – and it must be in the college record of 1973 end. Our econometrics, microeconomics, industrial economics, international trade, agriculture and labour economics [lecturers] all were very, very interesting. Professor Penrose, Dr Howe, Michel, Peter, Professor Walker, Professor Dasgupta.

Still I remember my first day – our strawberry and wine party at SOAS … with our tutor Peter – wonderful.

When I think of SOAS library, Walker Percy comes to mind. He was an author on our Social Anthropology reading list who described how one day he spontaneously got off a train stop early and felt a sense of euphoria, wonderment and power from breaking the habit of his daily commuter grind.

The same sense of well-being could be found by randomly plucking a book from a shelf and discovering new worlds. Such gems have remained more indelible than many of those articles I stood in the queue to photocopy and hardly read. Nevertheless, although it’s good to be open-minded one also needed to develop disciplined reading.

SOAS MA Law Students - Life at SOAS
MA Law Students in SOAS Library – April 2012

I have very fond memories of the SOAS Library, but my favourite memory took place many thousands of miles away from it: in 2001, while working on a gas deal in Saudi Arabia, a team of lawyers working in several jurisdictions urgently needed to get hold of the text of the original Saudi Arabian oil concession of 1933. However, despite some serious searches, none of these high-powered lawyers had managed to get hold of it. When I was contacted, I was able to explain on the phone the exact location where the text could be found on the lower ground floor of the SOAS library, and within a couple of hours the text was circulated to all concerned.

I still cherish my memories of the rich and unique collection of the SOAS Library. I found the Manuscript collection of particular value in the course of writing my dissertation on relations between Ethiopia and the Sudan on the Western Ethiopian Frontier 1898-1936. Of crucial importance in reconstructing the early 20th century history of Ethiopia was the trilogy of memoirs left by Blatta Mars’e Hazan Walda-Qirqos, a distinguished Ethiopian scholar and civil servant under Emperor Haile Sellassie of Ethiopia. This precious manuscript has now been published by Addis Ababa University Press.

I remember it as a hive of useful information, with space and character. I remember meeting people who became good friends there.

I probably even had a nap or two when feeling soporific, as a consequence of too much reading.

The Library should also contain a book I had published in English and Thai, shortly after finishing my PhD and which was based on experiences during my year of field study in Thailand. Apart from analytical work undertaken for the UN, I have also had published several articles and chapters on development issues, trying to keep up academic acumen.

[I remember the] year that a number of SOAS students concluded an evening’s entertainment in the hostelries of Westminster by determining that we would walk to Brighton…then and there! By 2.30pm the following afternoon four of us made it onto the pier, having received sandwiches and water en route provided by a brilliant team of volunteers, who had been woken up at midnight for the purpose!  We did not feel much pain, as our medicinal preparation during the previous evening had provided us with enough anaesthetic, but it also, unfortunately led us to follow signposts to Brighton round the outer reaches of the Croydon bypass, thereby adding a good few miles to the route-march! I recall a very tall and fit [student] way out in front. I believe he got there at least an hour ahead of his nearest rival.  We returned to London as car or rail passengers!

SOAS Library
Books Borrowed

Having first studied at SOAS in 1960, I remember when the Library was very different from what it is now.  The present building did not exist, and nothing was electronic. The catalogue was cards in drawers, and borrowing a book required a slip to be written by hand, with the shelf-mark and accession number, and your name, all with a carbon copy. This was a great disincentive to frivolous or unnecessary borrowing.

Shelfmarks were a great mystery, as they bore only an indirect relation to  subject or location; it was eventually explained to me that the more obscure and complex ones were based on where the book had been shelved in the last building but one.

Readers were not allowed to re-shelve books, because it was a job for specialists.  Only part of the book stock was accessible, where the student common room is now. If the book you wanted was one of those, you were lucky, especially if it had been correctly shelved, because you could then present the book and the slip to the assistant at the desk and you would soon be able to sit and read it.

But much of the stock was here and there in the building: cupboards in corridors, shelves in lecturers’ rooms, any odd corner. If you were very unlucky, you waited a couple of days for the book to be fetched from the off-site store at Egham.  Specialist staff knew how to locate them, and when each room was not needed by the two or three lecturers who shared it, they were eventually delivered to the reading room, which doubled as a theatre.

The reading room was a centre of research activity; there weren’t so many BA students in those days, and some academic staff were admirable for the time they spent patiently and quietly helping overseas postgraduates through complex bibliographical or philological processes. The Indologist A L Basham was often there, and so was the archaeologist A D H Bivar.  Like some other SOAS students, I was privileged to do some of my reading away from SOAS, in the spacious library of the Warburg Institute.

June 2003: Farewell to SOAS Library… I graduated with First class honours in Bengali with Religious studies. It was a sombre day for me knowing that I would no longer explore the vastness of SOAS Library, the centre of knowledge and learning. I hope one day to visit and still find the catalogue drawer waiting for me to rummage once again through the cards!

The SOAS Library, or why in reality I know nothing.  

For any student, lucky enough to spend a year or more at SOAS, its library, the yolk of its accumulated knowledge and intellectual spirit, will irresistibly sneak into the student’s life.

The library will become part of life, and part of the life will become the library.

For me, the intellectual energy that evaporated from the books, manuscripts, but also its hard-working visitors, became something like a necessary fuel that I needed on my long and bumpy road towards the (admittedly very partial) comprehension of development economics. But it was also a constant reminder of how incomprehensible the world really is for us. So diverse the brains, subjects, cultures, and motivations that produced this immense output of papers and books, so limited, it proved, was one’s own understanding of the world.

No matter what insights you gained, and how enriching and fruitful these might be, all the books and papers you digest will form probably only a few rows within one single section of one single shelf of the SOAS library.

But there were hundreds more, distributed over four floors, countless aisles, and a dozen or more reading rooms. Hundreds of bookshelves of mystery, of possible ways to understand (or misunderstand), comprehend and maybe even change the world, but these hundreds of shelves will be out of reach, their conclusions and wisdom locked up in other people’s heads. As such, while the library helped each one of us to grow in an intellectual way, it also teaches us to remain humble, since in reality we know (close to) nothing.

And it teaches that we should never take our own opinion as the sine qua non, as the proposal to which no viable alternative could possibly exist. Only when we listen to, consult with and learn from others, throughout lifetime, can we hope to de-mystify, little by little, some more of these untouchable bookshelves of SOAS’s library.


Thank you for contributions from alumni:
André, Andreas, Bahru, Dermot, Kathryn, Ferdousi, Marco, Mike and Sipra.

SOAS Library is one of the five designated UK National Research Libraries, along with: Cambridge University Library; The British Library of Political and Economic Science – London School of Economics; The University of Manchester Library; and The Bodleian Library – The University of Oxford.

Find out more:
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