Editor in Chief Clare and contributor Nour investigate the new world of 24-hour library access.
The library has always been a place of despair: the overcrowding in exam season, the rush for coffee at lunchtime, the poor quality of the sandwiches. For some reason the University have decided to extend our suffering and open the library 24 hours a day, at least during exam period. Reactions from team [qmunicate] have been mixed, ranging from considering moving in full-time to avoid the extortionate west-end rent, to joy at the possibility of somehow making our nocturnal sleeping patterns more productive, to concerns about potential effects on students sleep hygiene and mental health. Being the thorough student journalists that we are, [qmunicate] decided to investigate further, as Editor in Chief Clare and contributor Nour committed to a 12-hour overnight shift in the library – 8pm to 8am – in the interests of students, but also in search of some prime #content.
We go to Tesco to stock up on as many snacks as we can carry – cookies, crisps, satsumas, bananas, bread rolls, and an enormous tub of hummus. We aim for a balance between genuine sustenance, slow-release energy and delicious snack garbage. I have the bright idea of using my daily free coffee from Waitrose to kick-start this long, long night. I forget you now have to buy something in Waitrose to get your coffee for free, and end up spending two pounds (!!) on a tiny tub of dried mango. The coffee machine is broken; while we wait for it to be fixed, we marvel at the equally extortionate prices of Heston Blumental’s Christmas range, and consider the absurdity of middle-class consumer culture. Coffee finally in hand, we head back to the library, ready to begin our trial of endurance.
Hour One – 8pm:
We arrive in the library just before eight. It takes us considerable time to find a seat, despite the fact it’s already well into the evening – maybe 24-hour access is necessary after all. We choose a big booth on level 3 with one other person sitting opposite us; they leave after around 20 minutes – whether because they’re genuinely finished or to get away from our chattering is unclear – and the booth is ours. Despite having three essays due next week, I immediately start this article – Nour takes out some maths text books, browses twitter for ten minutes and then disappears. I eat the dried mango – overpriced – and finish the free coffee – lukewarm – and settle in for a long night. It begins.
Hour Two – 9pm:
Nour returns; he drinks a large amount of coffee from his pre-prepared flask, tells me about some bad Slavoj Zizek takes published in the Independent. I read them; they are bad. I write a paragraph of my essay and listen to the new Sufjan Stevens album. Level three of the library remains surprisingly busy, and surprisingly loud; most of the computers are still taken, a few people fritter out but it’s still full for a Monday night.
Hour Three – 10pm:
Nour runs out of coffee from his big flask and leaves briefly to refill it. We talk about times we’ve drank so much coffee and had so little sleep that we started to hallucinate and see shadow people out of the corner of our eyes. I make a reference to Bernard’s Watch and find out Nour doesn’t know what it is and have to explain the iconic children’s programme to him. I count out all my change and find I have enough money for at least twelve coffees. I get a coffee. The library is still relatively full.
Hour Four – 11pm:
Our photo and illustration editor, Imogen, comes to deliver us some ibuprofen – and also drops off 2/3rds of a chocolate cake! She suggests we search the library at 4am to see how many people leave their bags here overnight to hog a seat – [qmunicate] is on it with the top-quality investigative journalism. She wishes us luck, and promises to check in on us at 6am.
11:05: I have a horrible thought – what if 24-hour access leads to people fucking in the library? During my time in the QM I have already heard many stories of couples being ejected from the building for inappropriate behaviour in the gender neutral toilets. What could couples get up to at 4am, without the watchful CCTV eye of campus security? I try not to think about it – I may just be getting ideas as my essay is partially on the Beat poets. I may have just had too much coffee. I have another coffee. The library is still busy.
11:15: I have taken my shoes off. I get up to get a drink, and am disappointed to discover that not only is Level 3 still busy, but others don’t seem to have yet reached this level of late night library dishevelment. I buy some apple juice, and am horrified to find that it costs £1.60 – all-night library is bad for your wallet as well as your sleeping pattern.
11:32: we figure out how to plug our laptops into the TV screens in the booths. I play a clip of Slavoj Zizek saying ‘do you want some fucking fruit juice’ four times, the last time with the volume far too loud. We look around, fearful of the wrath of other library punters, but we appear to have gone unnoticed; the social paradigm has already begun to break down in The Night Library.
Hour Five: 12am:
Nour leaves to ‘search’ the library and report back. I am roughly halfway through my essay. I take my bra off under my top and hope that no-one notices. Around 1/3rd of the desks of level 3 are still occupied, far more than average for this time of night.
12:20: Nour returns from his scouting of the library – most of the other floors are nearly empty.
12:30: The people in the next booth are very loudly playing a remix of Toto’s ‘Africa’. [Editors note: Nice.]
12:42: I have taken my socks off.
Hour Six: 1am:
We have reached the halfway point. There are a surprising amount of people still in the library. I feel surprisingly ok, given the circumstances. I walk to the bathroom with bare feet and feel immense shame that others have not yet given up to the same extent. I eat some satsumas, naively hoping that the healthiness of the vitamin C will cancel out the unhealthiness of yet another all-nighter.
Hour Seven: 2am:
We finally move into as-yet-uncharted territory; the library has never been open this late before; no student has ever trod these halls at such an hour; we have entered a previously undiscovered realm.
So far it doesn’t feel that different tbh, level 3 is maybe still ¼ full. I get up for a third coffee; my bare feet are obscenely loud on the wood floor, announcing my disgusting, unshod presence to what feels like the whole of level 3.
Hour Eight: 3am:
I’ve reached the ‘mild chest pains’ stage of coffee overconsumption. I head up to level 6 to find a book, more to stretch my legs than anything else – the lifts are empty, which is a genuine delight. Level 6 annexe is abandoned – my Marxist textbooks have never been easier to find, albeit no easier to understand. Level 9 annexe, I find, is also deserted. Things start to feel genuinely eerie at this point, as my tiredness and the library’s emptiness combine in a distinctly uncanny way – the deathly silence of the quiet floors and constant, sterile glow of the fluorescent lights feel like ideal horror movie territory. I am surprised to find several people still working away on level nine – at one point I spot someone asleep on one of the sofas, curled up complete with pillow and sleeping bag, and realise we have entered as-yet uncharted territory. Going back down, I am startled when the lift opens and there are three people – real, waking human beings! – inside. We don’t speak; they giggle quietly between themselves, acknowledging our shared embarrassment, the collective shame at what we have done and the regret of all our decisions that led to this point. They exit with me at level 3 – I hope they are going home, although I suspect not. On the way back to my booth, I pass a guy sat bolt upright, headphones in, sound asleep. We are now entering the twilight zone.
Hour Nine: 4am:
Nour has gone around the library and counted everyone still here – there are 78 students in total. There are 40 people on level 3, 6 on levels 1 and 2, 7 distributed across levels 4-7, and 25 on levels 8-11.
At times of high stress or high boredom, I often fantasise about how much I could get done if I didn’t need to spend 1/3 of my time asleep, and begin to seriously consider foregoing sleep all together in favour of living a more productive life. This is one of the times when I regret even having that idea.
My back hurts. I get another coffee. While waiting for the coffee machine, I enjoy a medieval comic about the Book of Revelations on one of the library’s big screens. If there are jokes in it, they go over my head. I pass The Sleeping Man on my way back, he is now face-down on the desk.
There was no reason for me to do this but it’s now too late to give up.
Hour Ten: 5am:
Instituting a new feature in the library called ‘The Hell Hour’. The hell hour begins now.
Hour Eleven: 6am:
I’m 300 words away from finishing my essay, but at what price? The cleaners are coming in now – every small sound they make startles us; we are overtired and fragile. I get stuck trying to formulate a sentence and try to say it out loud in case it helps – it takes me three attempts to string anything together because I keep forgetting the words for ‘book’, ‘author’ and ‘essay’. I start to consider a nap, but with less than two hours left to go it hardly seems worth it. Incredibly, there are still other people in the library, some of whom I know have also been here all night. The night library is truly wild.
Hour Twelve: 7am:
I have finished my essay. Time is an illusion, as are other people, as am I. I am reduced to pure longing for somewhere to lie down. I format and footnote my essay, and resolve not to look at it for another week in an attempt to reduce my embarrassment at my own tired, nonsensical ramblings. People are now starting to come in, starting their library sessions early, like sensible, normal human beings. How I wish I could be one of those now.
We leave bang on eight am and resolve never to see each other in the library again. My walk home is strangely peaceful, with only a few morning people dotted around campus, the sun not quite risen behind the main building, spires silhouetted in front of pastel pink and yellow clouds.
Incredibly, people – actual, real people, not just idiots writing an article – seem to have made full use of the 24-hour library service. Whether that demonstrates its value or is an indictment of campus overcrowding or student sleep hygiene remains to be seen. My final verdict: it wasn’t as bad as I thought, but I hope I never do it again.
[Clare Patterson – @clarepttrsn]