An illicit pleasure in the library

Observations on tunes

I think it was George Melly who once said that inspecting someone else's record collection was the equivalent of a dog sniffing another dog's bum. I've always enjoyed the activity (the record collections, I mean), never failing to learn something about the contours of my host's cultural life.

Now, as with other formerly intimate pleasures, technology has expanded the possibilities in surprising ways. In the British Library lately, I have discovered a whole new playground for my musical voyeurism.

Through my laptop, which I am allowed to use inside the great red-brick cathedral of reading, I have rediscovered that pleasure of riffling through other people's LPs. And it has been delightful - the full heady kick that draws the dog's nose so irresistibly.

Users of wireless-enabled laptops with Apple's ubiquitous iTunes software can check out exactly what everyone else in the vicinity has in their MP3 collections. What's more you can, if you want, "share" all the music on your computer.

iTunes lets you browse all the available collections (though you can't copy anyone else's files on to your own hard drive), and then - keeping the noise down, of course - you can play other people's tracks through your own laptop and earphones.

All this has, no doubt, been standard behaviour in wired-up student households for some time, but to do it in a library - in the British Library of all places, with strangers all around reading literature as refined as it is obscure - seems a great indulgence.

It is, in effect, a form of community narrowcasting, spoilt only by Apple's decision to limit the number of digital eavesdroppers to five per machine per day.

Given the sartorial sense of the average user of the library, I had expected to find the kind of music that Jools Holland features on his BBC2 show - sappy boys with Fenders and AC30 amps playing retro-fitted rock. Or Coldplay and (blench) Snow Patrol. Or endless Stones compilations.

But last time I was there most of the small posse of iTunes users appeared to love Stereolab. There were numerous prickly post-punk tunes - Gang of Four, the Raincoats, early Scritti Politti. There was krautrock, neo-blues from Nick Cave and P J Harvey, and techno and electronica from the Warp and Rephlex labels. All users who were prepared to share their wares had Bach on board, one or two even sported some Stockhausen, and almost everyone had something like Kylie or ELO - a guilty pleasure that was quietly vaunted (you don't have to make all your music visible to onlookers).

The sharing is anonymous: you have no idea whose cultural blood you're sucking. Rather like in chatrooms, people go by whatever name they key into their preferences. "Rebecca" likes Autechre, Sun Ra and Scott Walker and not bothering to hide her ("her"?) Abba. "Dave" has size issues, naming his collection "Dave's 12GB of Greatness".

For a few days I thought the logical next step was to make it even cosier and I began to make special selections - one 60-minute playlist per day. It was like a return to making up special cassettes for potential friends or lovers. I would make available only a special hour of, say, organ music from Messiaen to Augustus Pablo; gnarly improvised guitar music; or, one irritable day, fierce free jazz. The whole episode now appears narcissistic and I put it down to writer's block. Now, when I get to the reading rooms, it's back to open access: the favourites and the embarrassments. Come one, come all. If we should happen to pass one day, strangers in the ether, come have a sniff.

Will Montgomery lectures at the University of Southampton and writes about music

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