Marx's office

A study for communists, a job for Angus Wilson, a scene for a Hitchcock film: Tom Rosenthal on the B

"The new Reading Room was opened today. I went in to see the progress of the arrangements and was quite astonished to see, placed over the entrance door, a bust - of whom? Why, of Mr P, the great colossus before whom our Trustees are like pygmies . . . I think such a bust in such a place a disgrace and not an honour to the museum. It is wholly uncalled for, and quite against the usage in all public buildings. Mr Barry's is not put up in the Houses of Parliament nor Sir R Smirke's in front of the Museum. Why then should the head of this mongrel Italian be placed immediately in view of all who come to consult the National Library? It is disgraceful to see such fulsome homage to a foreigner."

The author of these pungent words is Sir Frederic Madden, keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum, recording the momentous events of 1857 in his diary. The reviled Mr P is Antonio Panizzi, later Sir Anthony Panizzi.

How reassuring to see, in this Little Englander rant, the twin peaks of xenophobia and hospitality to refugees that have so strengthened English intellectual life. Panizzi was himself a refugee, having been forced in 1823, while under sentence of death during Italy's unification struggles, to flee to England. Although he had to wait until 1857 to see his dream fulfilled, after gaining employment at the museum, he formulated his philosophy of the library in 1836: "I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, fathoming the most intricate enquiry as the richest man in the kingdom, as far as books go, and I contend that the government is bound to give him the most liberal and unlimited assistance in this respect."

Not bad English prose from a Johnny Foreigner who couldn't speak the lingo when he had landed here 13 years earlier. Yet it is to his vision, courage and skill - "perhaps the greatest administrative librarian who ever lived" - that not just Britain but world civilisation owes so much.

Not all of that debt is of pure gold, but some of it has indubitably changed the world. Among the 25,000 books available to the public in the newly opened Round Reading Room, which were paid for by the new Labour peer Paul Hamlyn, are the Collected Works of Karl Marx. Marx held a reader's ticket for Panizzi's original library for 30 years. Lenin followed him and, during his own sojourn there, vouched for Trotsky's ticket. If ever there was a hotbed of communism, it was the "mongrel Italian" who created it.

But it wasn't all about the class struggle. Marx's daughter Eleanor and her lover, the unpleasant Edward Aveling, both armed with readers' tickets, used to meet under that magnificent dome. And when Aveling tricked Eleanor into killing herself, to free him for other women, her ticket was annotated with "Suicide Apr 1898".

When I first worked in London more than 40 years ago, it was in the Bloomsbury Street offices of Thames and Hudson, leased from the British Museum around the corner. In due course, I got my own reader's ticket - I seem to recall that Herbert Read was my sponsor - and spent as many hours there as an office job would permit, doing my own more modest researches.

Alas, I was there too late to witness the activities of Angus Wilson when he was the deputy superintendent of the Reading Room, although I was, a decade later, lucky enough to be his publisher for about 12 years. In her loving biography of Wilson, Margaret Drabble describes how he sat "conspicuously on a raised dais in the centre of the Reading Room beneath Panizzi's beautiful dome, a colourful bird in a vast circular cage, bow-tied, blue-rinsed, chattering loudly to readers and staff and friends on the telephone (was that really John Gielgud he was talking to, wondered one eavesdropper?) and confidently offering advice or even reading manuscripts or proofs for students, displaced Americans, Polish refugees, crazy scholars, and aspiring novelists".

But I do remember the aura of disapproval that would emanate from one of his successors if anything thought to be risque was sought. One day, I needed to look at D H Lawrence's paintings, then available only in a limited edition that had been published in 1929 at 50 guineas (about £l,500 today). When I tried to collect it, in the days when Lady Chatterley's Lover still could not be read by one's servants, I got an old-fashioned look and was despatched to the north library. There, I was allowed to study the book under the watchful eye of a librarian. I felt rather sullied by this lack of trust until I began to scrutinise the excellent collotype reproductions of the - not very good, but entirely harmless - paintings that, together with copies of the book, had been seized by the police from Lawrence's exhibition at the Warren Gallery in July 1929 on grounds of obscenity. (Some of the paintings depicted pubic hair.) Around each human figure, there seemed to be a mysterious extra outline. On closer examination, I saw that the extra outline was a deeply scored impression, clearly left by a ballpoint pen or stylus while making a tracing of the painting. My book-lover's soul was outraged, but I felt a new respect for the custodians of the nation's books and never again complained about their restrictions.

It (almost) goes without saying that one admired the library staff's erudition. The young Angus Wilson was coping with catalogue entries in Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, Welsh, Dutch and Danish, and learnt some Norwegian partly, as Drabble says, "in homage to Ibsen".

We also know, from the sheer output of books, pamphlets and articles by holders of readers' tickets, that the combined brain power of any single day's catch of readers would be quite incalculable. Not all one's fellow readers, or even one's predecessors, were necessarily either genuine scholars or even good people. In "A Ticket for the Reading Room", William Plomer misses nothing:

Down at heel and out at elbows
Off he goes on gouty feet
(Where he goes his foxy smell goes),
Off towards Great Russell Street.

On he shuffles, quietly mumbling
Figures, facts and formulae -
Bats are busy in the belfry,
In the bonnet hums a bee.

Plomer got it just right, although he was not as intolerant as one of Wilson's older colleagues, who told the tyro librarian that private case books (those held to be restricted on either legal or moral grounds) would be requested only by "anarchists, unfrocked clergymen or swine".

No doubt Plomer had his views on Miss McDonald. None of us had any notion of what her first name was, but she haunted the old Reading Room for half a century. She cycled in daily from Highgate in shorts, socks and plimsolls and got to the museum in time to head the morning rush into the Reading Room, where she always sat in seat J8, reputed to have been Lenin's regular perch. No one knew what her research involved and she never published a word. It was alleged that, as her contribution to the war effort, she had given up her Gaelic studies in order to translate Virgil into French. But, in the spirit of Panizzi and Orwell, all readers were equal and none was more equal than others.

The books in the new display cases in the restored Reading Room look like an assemblage of the peaks of intellectual history and treasures of English literature. The criterion for display is simply the author's sometime possession of a reader's ticket so that, apart from the founding fathers of communism, we have Swinburne, Wilde, W B Yeats, Arnold Bennett, Virginia Woolf, E M Forster, Anthony Powell, Shaw, Gissing, Graham Greene and so on.

Happily, despite incendiary bombs during the Blitz, David Lodge's title for his early (1965) novel The British Museum is Falling Down is neither historical nor prophetic. When it was reissued in 1981, Lodge wrote in his introduction: "I will always have a special fondness for this novel, however, because of its affectionately ironic evocation and celebration of that unique and wonderful place, the Reading Room of the British Museum."

Lodge's protagonist, the troubled but charming Adam Appleby, has an expanding family, a dwindling income and a too small flat. He has nowhere to write: "Not that he could afford separate accommodation, but perhaps he could live in the Museum, hiding when the closing bell rang and dossing down on one of the broad-topped desks with a pile of books for a pillow."

There are countless scenes in fiction set in this great room, and there is one marvellous film chase across its huge dome (now protruding like a doughnut from Norman Foster's breathtaking glass roof) in Alfred Hitchcock's 1929 thriller, Blackmail.

Being an old-fashioned, dyed-in-the-wool Freudian, I cannot avoid the cliche that the room, particularly in winter, provides a womblike comfort, and that it has given not only sustenance but also pleasure to thousands of writers, many of whom have repaid that debt by celebrating, or at least recording, it in their books.

I have been to the new Reading Room twice. Once for the opening party - a very good one - when everything glittered magnificently under the carefully replicated 1857 gilt and a facsimile of the original paint colour, scrupulously reconstructed after analysis of carefully preserved flakes and scrapings from the old dome. But I had also been there a week earlier, when the vast space was deserted except for a few hard-hatted workmen, wearing masks to protect their lungs from the cement dust and paint fumes. And there were some - not all, but enough - of the old blue-leather-covered chairs and reading desks, perfectly preserved except for the swirls of dust. I asked my cicerone for permission to sit and brood for a couple of minutes, to imagine my younger self, reading away again. Whoever was in charge of the refurbishing has an immaculate sense of the past: once again, the centre of the room has as its focal point the endless printed catalogue.

Because the new boys at St Pancras have the entire British Library holdings catalogued on multiply accessible computer disks, this old multi-volume catalogue is, literally, useless. It is indeed suitable only for decoration, which is why the BL was happy to return it to the BM. Having gained permission to approach it, much as primitive peoples might approach the effigy of some temple god, I circled it until I found the volume marked "ROSENT" and, stretching long-unused muscles, hauled it out and laid it down on top of the central structure at which world-weary and eccentric men and women used to preside over us toilers. It was startling to see just how many people called Rosenthal were represented in the catalogue. To disappoint the cynical, I was not, like Max Beerbohm's Enoch Soames, looking myself up. I found what I was after: the long list of publications by my German-Jewish scholar father, Erwin Rosenthal, one of those whom Louis MacNeice described so memorably: ". . . hawk-like foreign faces/The guttural sorrow of the refugees." My father's sorrow in exile was, from his arrival in 1933 onward, much alleviated by the true intellectual hospitality of that wonderful building which so nourished the growth of his many books.

As I read the erudite and splendidly written official BM Reading Room booklet by Marjorie Caygill, I learnt that Sydney Smirke, the architect of the old Reading Room, was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1860. I recalled that, in 2000, Will Alsop was awarded the Stirling Prize for the best building of the year in recognition of another, inevitably less grand building - the new public library in Peckham, south London. The distinguished American art critic Harold Rosenberg invented the phrase "the tradition of the new". It is somehow cheering to know that, even now, in dumbed-down Britain, new libraries can still become part of that long tradition.

Tom Rosenthal is a publisher, writer and bibliomaniac