The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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British Library banishes pen
- Habit of scribbling on books leads to pencils-only policy

London, Jan. 15: Major libraries around the world, including notably the National in Calcutta, are expected to study the example of the British Library in London which has announced a ban on pens in favour of a “pencils-only” policy.

Although pencils are slower in taking notes than a free-flowing fountain pen and require regular sharpening, the change in policy had to be brought in by the British Library because of the actions of a minority of thoughtless readers who insist on underlining even rare books and manuscripts with pens.

The massive British Library, which has been rebuilt next to St. Pancras and King’s Cross railway stations, is used by thousands of readers and scholars from Britain and around the world, including India ' this is because it contains valuable source material on the British period in India.

One Indian who appears to have taken up semi-permanent residence at the British Library is the Kerala-born writer, Sebastian Devasiya, who publishes under the pseudonym Asiananda. One of his recent books on Mohammed Ali Jinnah painted a positive 500-page portrait of the founder of Pakistan and suggested he was a much-misunderstood man in India.

Among other libraries which adopted the “pencils-only” policy long ago is the Wren at Trinity College, Cambridge, which houses, among other valuable documents, the papers of the Indian mathematical genius, Srinavasa Ramanujan (1887-1920).

Explaining its “pencils-only policy”, a spokeswoman for the British Library told The Telegraph: “Unfortunately some items have been damaged (by pens) in the past.”

As a consequence, she said, “from January 2006, the ‘pencils-only’ policy, which has been in force in some reading rooms at the British Library’s St. Pancras site, will be extended to all reading rooms at St. Pancras, the newspaper collection at Colindale (in north London) and our reading room at Boston Spa. This policy is intended to protect the most precious and vulnerable collections from the damage that ink can cause. Marks made with ink are particularly difficult to remove and sometimes defaced books cannot be replaced and have to be withdrawn from use.”

She added: “The reading rooms where you could previously use a pen were as follows: Humanities Reading Rooms, Social Sciences and Science and Technology Reading Rooms. A pencil policy has always been in place for the following Reading Rooms: Rare Books and Music, Manuscripts, Maps, Oriental and India Office Collections and Philatelic.”

The British Library takes its responsibilities seriously.

Its official statement said: “As custodians of the national collection we do everything we can to protect the collection for current and future generations of readers.”

The statement went on: “Unfortunately a small number of readers make marks in our books. Marks made with ink are particularly difficult to remove, and can mean that we have to buy another copy of the book. Occasionally, defaced books that we cannot replace have to be withdrawn from use.”

It added: “The policy will apply from January 2006 onwards and from this date readers are asked not to bring pens into the reading rooms. We realise that this decision may inconvenience some readers, and we ask for your support and understanding as we continue to do our utmost to protect the collections for you.”

It has to be admitted that a declining minority of British people use pens today ' those who scribble tend to do so with biros or ballpoint pens.

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