The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Books there & ballots here

Could the British Library in London or the Bodleian in Oxford be forcibly requisitioned by the Electoral Commission in the United Kingdom and turned into a poll centre as is happening with the National Library in Calcutta?

The answer is a simple but emphatic “No”.

Asked whether the British Library could ever be taken over for a month, and the place run as a polling centre or for any other purpose, chief press officer Ben Sanderson said: “It’s hard to imagine. It really is very, very hard to imagine the circumstances in which this would happen — it would have to be a national emergency.”

What he probably meant is war, perhaps even a nuclear attack, certainly not a general election.

At the Bodleian in Oxford, Samuel Fanous, the head of communications and publishing, can think of only one occasion, probably since the library was founded in 1602, when the running of the library was disrupted — “and that was during the Second World War”.

The Bodleian’s traditions are respected — which is perhaps something the Election Commission in India should consider when coming to a decision over the National Library in Calcutta.

While the Election Commission insists on commandeering the National Library despite reasoned arguments why it should not do so, the Electoral Commission in Britain steps into no premises without proper permission.

The process of choosing a venue as a centre for polling works without friction because “permission is sought”. Ninety nine times out of 100 that permission is readily given but if the venue refuses, that is an end of the matter.

“It is the local authorities which choose and run the polling stations but this is a pretty well-established procedure — normally, they are schools or leisure centres,” says an Electoral Commission spokesman.

“The local authority has to seek the permission of the school or the leisure centre. Local authorities do not have the right to take over a place. Permission always has to be sought.”

A local authority lacks the statutory powers needed to behave like a bully boy, but it would face a national outcry if it tried to take over, say, the British Library in St Pancras, north London, or the Bodleian for polling purposes.

The British Library, like all publicly funded institutions, looks for ways to increase its revenue. For example, the complex includes a 300-seat conference centre but this has a separate entrance so that delegates to gatherings do not disturb readers.

The Bodleian, consisting of a complex that includes Duke Humfrey’s Library, the Divinity School and the Radcliffe Camera (the word means room in Latin) is much bigger. It does allow parts of the building to be used for filming but usually these are the sections rarely used by readers — filming is almost always outside normal opening hours.

Those who know the Bodleian well will recognise some scenes in the Harry Potter films were shot inside the library. For example, the richly vaulted Divinity School was the Hogwarts infirmary in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Duke Humfrey’s Library featured as the Hogwarts Library.

“But you could not have a reporter standing inside the Bodleian during opening hours, saying, ‘I’m standing inside the Bodleian...’ That would not happen,” asserts Fanous.

As for disrupting the functioning of the Bodleian for 20 days in order to facilitate polling, his reply is firm: “Absolutely not.”

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