In my experience libraries are fusty places with fierce ladies telling you to be quiet, or big silent tombs where grim students bury their heads in books for hours on end. Many public libraries in Britain have been closed and others seem to be underfunded, under heated, empty and sad.
Nothing in my memory prepared me for Liverpool’s Central Library, which can only be described as a phenomenon. When I was a student here this neo-classical building was an empty shell but in the interim the Liverpool Council have invested £50 million pounds into making it a modern wonder – with a neo-classical façade. How the council pay for its upkeep when central government have decimated their budget by over 75% is a mystery.
A public library is a great place for travellers to kill time or meet people. You can read the papers, access the internet, use the meeting rooms and get in from the cold (and in Britain it’s cold most of the time), catch up with your diary, meet people and avoid spending money. In Liverpool’s great library you can even get business start-up consultancy or go to meditation classes on a Friday evening.
I’m writing this on the fourth floor of the library, where a massive word on the wall – “Meet” – is written in huge 1 metre high letters. To one side are three meeting rooms and last night they were all joined into one space where about 50 people came to listen to a talk about black people who had fought in World War One and experienced terrible racism when they got home to Liverpool. A local history group were launching a website made up of letters written by “black ex-servicemen, seamen and factory workers stranded or left destitute in Liverpool after the First World War.”
Now it’s 4pm and a private French teacher is setting up class on the top floor. “I couldn’t get one of the meeting rooms” she tells me, “so I have to teach here, in the hall.” Fair enough. I can hear her talking to a big scouse fella in French and I can understand some of what he says, for example “je déteste Manchester.”
About an hour ago crowds of teenagers were being disgorged from the lifts, milling around in the corridor, giggling like stoners and piling through the big glass doors onto the terrace – where you can get a commanding view of St George’s Hall and the city centre.
The teenagers spend hours on the terrace, huddling in conspiratorial groups, laughing hysterically, tapping their smartphones and jumping about. When clouds of smoke rise from their midst a voice comes over the tannoy telling them that smoking isn’t allowed. It’s strange to think that tomorrow they will tell their peers that they had a great time “in the library”.
Earlier in the day, harried mothers, grandparents and the odd Daddy show up with push chairs and scores of little children – who love pushing the big button that opens the door to the rooftop terrace. This place is incredibly kiddie-friendly: there is a vast kindergarten space under the main reading room where scores of kids mill around a minimalist exhibition by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (it was curated and sent over by The Pompidou Centre in Paris).
What I love about this place is that there are no officious library workers telling you to be quiet or get out. In fact the staff are friendly and helpful. I’m impressed that the tough-looking security men tolerate the hordes of teenagers, but presumably the grungy looking kids have never done any damage. They’re just looking for a nice space where they can unwind, spend time together, stay warm and not spend money.
Liverpool’s Central Library is a temple to tolerance and community and everyone is welcome.
Above all this hubbub is a rounded dome, shaped like a half-egg, crafted from wood and glass. It’s a superb piece of architecture, engineering and craftsmanship that looks like a mini-version of the Reichstag’s iconic dome. Not only does it look fantastic, but it lets light into the atrium which reaches down to the ground floor. This image does justice to it.
An Anthropologist’s Paradise
If I was a student of anthropology I would do a study of the shifting populations that use this library. A sociologist might like to study the many social functions it provides. On the ground floor is a café which tends to be patronised by old people, legions of them, looking for somewhere warm to socialise and get some tea and cake. Often I see them squealing with laughter. Some come in with groups of elderly friends and other appear with kids in pushchairs. When I was last in the café I sat next to a curator who was having a Skype call with someone she was trying to get to sponsor her latest show. She was using it as an office, as I sometimes do.
On the ground floor there are a small number of hard-core readers, intense men (always men) who are buried in their books or papers. These people are almost invisible and, like the old people, rarely go up to the top floor.
First thing you see when entering the main entrance is an escalator, taking visitors up to the first floor. An escalator! In a library! This may sound a bit like a shopping mall or an airport but it isn’t vulgar in the slightest; it’s purely functional as it gets the crowds of visitors (including tourists, immigrants and families who come just for the dome) up to the first floor, where they get absorbed.
The place never seems crowded and a local Councillor I met at a rehab clinic just told me the building “can hold up to 10,000 people”. He also told me it has become the most popular public building in Liverpool.
There are over 40 public computers on the first floor and they are generally all being used – by students, unemployed people, researchers, people passing through for the day, oldies and God knows who else. Membership is free, there is no entrance requirements and so hundreds come every day.
There are no signs saying “silence” and yet there is respectful silence in all areas except on the roof where the crazy kids can let rip, and even there the security detail keep a sharp eye out for cigarettes, alcohol and bad behaviour. The teenagers tend to go quiet as they pass through the zones where people are working.
Also on the first floor is the magnificent Picton Reading Room — a vast, round Victorian chamber that I have only seen in London and Rome. This is a relic of Liverpool’s imperial past – until the 1950s this city was the main port for the British Empire and home to a ruling class of rich merchants.
My girlfriend says she’s seen quite a lot of tramps using the place but I’ve never seen one, or maybe they’re invisible to me. There are so many people milling about, and so many places to hide, that it’s easy to miss people.
The Political Context
I didn’t know the historical or political context of this building before writing this article, and stumbled across it when looking for photos. This article gives the historical context and quotes Joyce Little, the head of Liverpool libraries, as saying: “No one is forced to go to a library, it’s not like other public service buildings. We wanted a reason for people to come.”
Here is the background, courtesy of Ike Ijeh who is an architecural writer:
„There appears to be something of a schism emerging in the political patronage of libraries at present. While austerity cuts are forcing many local authorities to close, or at least to consider closing local library branches, central libraries in cities such as Manchester, Worcester, Birmingham as well as Liverpool, are being lovingly and ambitiously rebuilt and appear to be one the few flourishing aspects of a harassed public sector…
„London, with its municipal administration fragmented across 33 fractious boroughs, has no city-wide equivalent…
„Liverpool with its combination of sensitive historic engagement and contemporary spatial drama, serves as an impressive and cost-effective municipal template to export to the rest of the country…
„But there is a final element that makes the new Liverpool Central Library work and this arguably is the hardest one for new buildings to achieve. Few UK cities exhibit the levels of raw civic pride and fierce local allegiance found in Liverpool. While Londoners passively see their public buildings as national monuments, Liverpudlians passionately revere their own as native emblems.”
Photo credit: British Library