Libraries are brilliant.
I’d forgotten how brilliant, though – and two things recently have reminded me. Firstly, the love my two year old daughter has for our local library in Didsbury (when we walk up to it she shouts “BOOKS!”) – and the hope that, as she grows older, this old palace of words and knowledge stays with her, as the same route into different and exciting worlds that I remember from my childhood library in south east London.
Secondly, the incredible renovation and reimagining of Central Library in Manchester, which re-opened to the public a few months ago.
I’m in there now, having taken a day off work to write a presentation I’m giving in a few weeks. I thought coming in here would remove me from distractions – what an idiot. This place is distraction! I can wander around for hours – I’ve just spent a good 45 minutes skimming a book on the history of James Bond musical scores, and before that I spent half an hour in the local history section on the ground floor, reading the excellent interactive and physical displays which, excitingly for me, concentrate on real people and local social history.
But mainly, I can spend hours just wandering around this beautiful renovated building.
This place is, for me, the gold standard in renovating a public building. It has modernised, made a service that is relevant and useful for a 20th century audience. But they have kept the soul of the place, remembered that it’s not just a building but a century of real people and their stories. New mingles with old. Windows open up on old staircases, ghosts of lettering remain on otherwise polished stone walls, old bookcases are used as room dividers, the original reading room desks are kept – but cleaned (there is a great display of decades-old sweet and crisp wrappers, notes and other tiny lost objects they found when renovating one desk) and with power sockets added. Wifi is strong and free, and lets me write this blog post next to walls full of old journals and contemporary art.
On the lower ground floor is a modern lending library, there are banks of PCs around the place. Manchester could, like many other councils, have built a soulless glass box to house these things, and sold Central Library as a hotel, or retail space. That they didn’t shows admirable respect for a population and it’s history.
The local Lib Dems, in political opposition in Manchester, have criticised the cost of doing this. They are idiots. Modern Manchester was built on finding ways of improving the lives of its citizens – and libraries were such a key part of that. This library renovation brings the 21st century, and looks to the future in its fabric and its service – but without losing its soul. Hopefully my daughter can come here in 30 years time and be just as inspired (and distracted) as I am.