23 March 2014

How Should a Library Be?

When I moved to Manchester, back in 2010, I was particularly intrigued by this big, round building in the center of town.

 The Central Library.

Ewan MacColl, that famous English folk singer, songwriter, communist, labour activist, actor, poet, playwright, and record producer, was at the Library on its opening day. I imagine everyone in the city must have immediately fallen in love with its beautiful, Classical, Pantheon-inspired stature.

But I had just missed it... in 2010, before I got here, it was closed for renovations - set to open in 2014. I didn't think I would get to see it. My visa was meant to expire in February 2014. I'd be back in Atlanta, or somewhere else by the time the renovations were done. I thought, if I ever visited Manchester again, maybe in a few years, I would like to wander around it.

But there was no way I'd get to actually use it, no way I would ever get used to it being open, being available, being just another resource in this great town.

It was asbestos-ridden, I'd heard from friends who'd lived here longer. It was crumbling. I've only ever gazed at it from the outside, unsure what secrets it might hold.

Yesterday, it opened.

And it is stunning.

The entrance is called the Shakespeare Hall, filled with stained glass and natural light and smooth pale stone.

Manchester must be the world capital of secular stained glass. This window is entirely devoted to Shakespeare's plays. 

The building, it turns out, is 6 stories high, with a massive reading room in the center. They've put the NorthWest Film Archive in, with little viewing booths & there's the BFI Mediatheque in, too. There's a performance space. Event spaces. A cafe.

The ceiling window lets in plenty of white daylight.

I love the old signage they've left on the stones in the reading room.

The reading room is so perfectly round that if you stand in the center, you'll hear voices from other parts of the room. It's a weird, ghostly sensation, talking to someone you can't see, listening in on people who don't know you can hear them. As an audio nerd, I tried to get some recordings... but I'm not sure how they came out. I stood in the center, listening for a long time. The whole room echoes and echoes - apparently, when the building first opened in 1934, it was a big problem for people who came to the library to... you know... readNewly developed sound-absorbing material has helped quite a lot.The corridors that swing around the reading room are stunning, too. So many intriguing views and angles. It's really beautiful.

This corridor leads from the Central Library to Manchester's Town Hall, another of my favourite, favourite buildings in the world. It's a pretty glamorous corridor, hey?

Outdoors, there used to be an open walkway between the Library and Town Hall.
Photo from The Shrieking Violet

Sadly, the Council have decided to enclose Library Walk in a cage of glass, allowing them to gate & and lock it at night, under the guise of 'public safety.' I mean, sure, Victoria Park is where students are regularly reporting sexual assault and theft - but if you want a way to keep homeless people away from a recently renovated building, I guess you have to claim it's for 'public safety.' 'Public control' sounds more accurate to me. Of course, the places where Greater Manchester Police most often tweet about violent crime in the city are nowhere near Library Walk - but why let that in the way of gating off public space from the kind of people you'd rather not hang out near pretty public buildings?And therein lies my, and many people's, concern. The Central Library is a public building. It is not just meant to be a gorgeous, formalist, beautiful building. It should, at its heart, be a library. A resource.  From what I saw, on most floors of the library, there just weren't all that many... books.

They've done something really nice with the music collection - there are musical instruments around it, so people can have a go playing the sheet music. There's a drum kit, a piano. That's neat and I rather like it.

But the main lending library is stuck down in the basement of the building. With no natural light, the part that people will use most is worst placed.

And while event spaces and film viewing booths are great, I'm not sure the new Central Library actually holds the same collection it once did. Only one floor of the newly opened building has stacks of reference books. In 1968, the Central Library had nearly 1.66 million volumes. How many more must it have collected since? Manchester's Central Library was famous as a public, not university-based, library for its non-fiction reference investment and collection. 

They did do a cool thing with the stacks - famous faces from Manchester's history are on them, and when you open one stack or close another, you either disjoin or join up the images. This image is Rutherford, of atom-breaking fame, with a face divided by books.

But there's only one floor of stacks! 
A while ago, Manchester City Council was going to pulp a lot of its reference books rather than find space for them in the new library – supposedly because no one ever requested those books anymore. Of course, that doesn't mean no one ever will, or that those books are useless. The 'Friends of Manchester Central Library' stopped that from happening.
But books cost money and space to store. Those books are being stored in a warehouse now. They haven't been pulped. Yet. They also haven't been catalogued, so the public don't know which books are there... and therefore can't request them. I'm worried that in five or ten years, when no one has used them because no one can see them - the city will feel justified in actually pulping them. I like the new Central Library - I think it's a beautiful restoration of a gorgeous building. I like that it's got film viewing booths and event spaces. But in the course of its renovations, it's lost a lot of its non-fiction reference books. It seems like it might have become a glorified internet cafe. It's supposed to be a library. Where are all the books?

02 March 2014

Sweet, bitter, and Saltaire

This month, two of the three founding members of Bad Language are packing up and moving to London. While Bad Language will continue, stronger for the three years that they nurtured it, their moving tastes bittersweet. Dave Hartley has written a wonderful post about what Bad Language has meant to many of us here in Manchester. I strongly recommend it.

I wanted to write this post, though, for Dan and Nici more personally. I can't thank Dan & Nici enough (as well as Joe Daly, the third Bad Language founder, who isn't going anywhere, at least for now *shaking my fist at him*). You see, in the dark and cold months of my first winter in Manchester, in 2010-2011, Bad Language became my whole world for a while.

It's the monthly literature night, in the crowded back room of The Castle Hotel, where I not only felt welcome - I made friends, I read my stories and I made Manchester my home. They've published my writing and asked me to read at amazing events like last year's Box of Tricks Counter Culture Club and Manchester Museum's Northern Elements show.

More than that, Dan and Nici became my friends. We played and loved boardgames together, and commiserated about work and interviews together. Nici, who is also an excellent masseuse, sorted my back out last year, when I was having real problems from sitting too much at work (and wearing heels all the time). They both read stories at my wedding, a contribution that made the day special and unique and made me love the Manchester literature scene more than ever. I'm so proud to be a part of it.

When I moved to Manchester, I knew it might be hard to make new friends. By a certain point in life, most people have already made more friends than they can really keep up with. Dan and Nici, and Bad Language as a whole, welcomed me in. I once managed to almost repay their kindness by getting a high-profile guest to headline Bad Language. I know we'll see each other when I visit London and when they visit Manchester... but I can't pretend that I won't miss them.

The sweet news, though, is that they've left Bad Language in good hands. Joe Daly will keep hosting, of course, along with one of the most welcoming, friendly, encouraging and big-hearted people I have ever met in my life: Fat Roland. He's the best. The best. I'm excited to see how Bad Language evolves under this new leadership. Prediction: more weird.
This is the kind of thing Fat Roland does. 


Last weekend, when Jonti and I were in Leeds, we decided to take a day trip out to Saltaire. Surprisingly, the name of the village has nothing to do with 'salt' or 'air.' Rather, it was founded by Victorian industrialist Titus Salt, and it's near the River Aire - 'aire' meaning, most probably, 'strong river' in Common Brittonic.

Titus Salt felt the slums of Bradford were bad for the workers in his textile mill - so he moved his whole operation out and created the world's first model village. This changed urban planning forever. It was a true Work-Live-Play environment.

A rainbow from the window of Salts Mill.

Today, Salts Mill is home to a privately-owned David Hockney gallery with the largest collection of Hockney works in the world. Hockney is a pretty well-regarded British painter. Salts Mill doesn't show him off very well, though. The first floor of the gallery is just a giant art supply shop, with some Hockney works hung around the perimeter - and there's no information about the works. No titles, no dates, no word about what materials were used. Essentially, you don't feel you've learned anything about Hockney, though you have wondered whether you should buy a new set of coloured pencils.

The second floor is pretty much the same, except a book store replaces the art supply shop.

And the third floor is a cafe, behind which is a pretty decent gallery space, where you only slightly feel like your attention is constantly jarred by the sound of an espresso machine. Apparently, this total lack of information is entirely intentional, as my friend Richmal told me the owner is worried that if people know too much about the artworks, they'll nick them. Richmal grew up in Saltaire and used to work in Salts Mill - so I believe her.

Which makes me wonder what the point of an art gallery is, exactly. This one seems to be particularly about selling books and art supplies and coffee. Jonti and I weren't too impressed, though the recent stuff Hockney has started doing with Photoshop and his iPhone are lovely. When he finishes a new iPhone drawing, he emails it to the gallery - and they immediately put it into rotation on the screens that display his iPhone pieces, which is a neat use of technology & immediate art.

Disappointed in the Hockney gallery, we thought we'd at least see the village and we dropped into the Visitor's Centre, where they gave us a Heritage Walking Tour booklet. 

The tour took us around a block of the village, but it didn't really provide much information. It told us which houses were for single male workers (the big ones) and which houses were for single families (the slightly smaller ones, with gardens out front). The tour told us that Titus Salt hadn't built any pubs into the town, because he didn't want the workers drinking. Makes him seem a bit of a boor, doesn't it? "To work for me, you'll live here, and you'll have no beer, sirs, and you're welcome!"

We walked the tour - and we just felt like we had missed something. Somehow, Saltaire put all the effort into getting a UNESCO World Heritage Site classification... and then didn't bother doing very much for all the tourists who would want to visit such a place. The Reformed Church is apparently stunning inside, and they've spent a lot of money cleaning it up... but it's only open for a few hours on a Sunday. We couldn't see it.
From Wikipedia

Wikipedia told me that Salt didn't build any pubs because he himself was a Methodist and teetotal - which makes him seem a little less hypocritical, if no less patronising. Richmal told me that one of the houses has a tower, and the person who lived in that house had to climb it every Sunday & make sure no one was doing their washing; Sunday being God's day of rest, after all.

These, I think, would have been nice things to learn while we were walking about.

In Sydney, the council had saved a few of the oldest convict-built buildings, and kept them furnished in the style of that time, as a museum. But in Saltaire, there is no such 'model house,' for visitors to wander. All the homes are privately-owned. Richmal's sister still lives there, and apparently often has tourists knock on her door, hoping for a look round. Needless to say, she doesn't want random visitors all up in her house.

We found a lovely pub, hilariously named 'Fanny's Alehouse.' It's on the edge of the village, built after Titus Salt's time, obviously. Good beer there...

And then we came across the Victoria Hall, where Jonti took a particular liking to the lion.

I found out later it was built as part of the original village - a community centre of sorts. A beer festival was going on, but they let us in to see the building without buying tickets to it. 

It really was a pretty building. But I really wished the history was more available within the town - even just on the leaflet they gave us in the Visitors' Centre. I was glad to talk to Richmal later, as she confirmed that I hadn't missed anything - the town really just doesn't make very much of its history.

It seems like Titus Salt was quite an enlightened Victorian industrialist, caring at least enough about his worker's health to make a huge investment in this town. He even built a park in the town, for leisure and exercise. It's in the rules of the park that you get a hint of the problem that would soon arise with this kind of fatherly enlightenment and these company towns.
  1. The timing of closing will be indicated each day by the ringing of a bell.
  2. No person will be allowed to enter or remain while in a state of intoxication.
  3. No child under the age of eight years will be admitted, except in care of an adult.
  4. No dog will be admitted…unless led with a chain or string.
  5. No horse, ass or mule will be admitted.
  6. Visitors are not to interfere with the cannons or flagpole….nor to throw or leave about any orange peel.
  7. ‘No music, singing, preaching, lecture or public discussion, and no meeting for the purpose of making any religious or political demonstration will be allowed without the written sanction of the firm’
  8. No stone throwing, disorderly and indecorous conduct, profane and indecent language, gambling or pitch & toss.
  9. Soliciting of alms is strictly prohibited.
  10. ‘No wine, beer, spirits,or intoxicating drinks are to be consumed in the park’.
  11. ’Smoking is not allowed in the alcoves, nor spitting on the paths’.
  12. ’The playgrounds are not to be used on Sundays’.
Good luck trying to form a union or protest your low wages, Salts Mill workers. Very best luck, indeed.