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?

No comments:

Post a Comment