The opening of Liverpool’s first free public library on 18 October 1860 was marked by a public holiday and a day of celebrations, culminating in spectacular firework displays. Yesterday, Liverpool celebrated again: from 9:00 am to midnight, thousands poured through the doors of that same library, reopened after two years being rebuilt to a spectacular design.
In the morning I joined the crowds: walking the literary pavement leading to the new library entrance that displays the titles of books and films and, once inside, gazing up at the five-storey atrium topped with its elliptical glass dome, stunned with wonder. In the evening I returned to find the place still heaving with people of all ages: it was LightNight in Liverpool, and the library threw open its doors until midnight, while a fantastic light show was projected onto the building’s exterior.
I was filled with a tremendous sense of civic pride – a feeling echoed by everyone I spoke to, and in overheard conversations. This was the culmination of the largest public library project in Europe, testimony to faith in the future of public libraries and symbol of an alternative to austerity policies and the slow death of public services. Though the project has not been without controversy – critics have expressed disquiet over its funding by Private Finance Initiative (PFI), while others point out that cuts to the city’s budget will result in many branch libraries facing reduced hours or closure – this was a day for unreserved celebration.
Without doubt, the building is a stunner. There are echoes of Richard Roger’s transformation of the Berlin Reichstag building in what architect Ben Aston has achieved here: the glass-domed atrium flooding with light what before was gloomy and dingily municipal. Like Rogers, too, Aston has taken a Grade II listed building and sympathetically inserted modern, state of the art facilities whilst preserving and integrating the historic areas.
Before it closed two years ago, Central Library was a labyrinth of confusing stairways and corridors that linked rooms on different levels, each housing a different section of the catalogue. There was a strange, circular ‘International’ library with narrow, stepped corridors of shelving that might abruptly end, blocked by a pillar. In a mysterious and remote region were rooms that were kept locked, closed to the public except for organised visits arranged by schools or other groups. I used to arrange library visits for the Access students I taught at college, and the highlight of each visit would be when a librarian would flourish a large key and unlock these secret places. That was when we saw the treasure that lay at the heart of this collection: the only copy of Audubon’s Birds of America held by a public institution, a massive leather-bound volume containing hand-coloured, life-size drawings of each bird. It’s one of the world’s most valuable books.
The confusing building that we learned to navigate for thirty-odd years was the product of rebuilding in the sixties and seventies following bomb damage in the May Blitz of 1941. The bombing had destroyed not only large sections of the building but also more than 200,000 volumes and irreplaceable treasures including a set of George Caitlin’s drawings of Native Americans which, if it had survived, would have been one of only two complete sets in the whole world. Fortunately, the 19th century core of the library – the Picton and Hornby libraries and the Oak Room with its gigantic Audubon volume – survived the destruction.
Ironically, it was the rebuilt wing of the library that, by the turn of the century, had ceased to be fit for purpose: storage and archive facilities were inadequate, with a leaking roof and damp problems meaning that the building failed to provide the controllable atmosphere needed to keep safe three million archive items, some of them extremely rare and precious. So in 2009, the city council announced plans to demolish the parts of the building added after the Second World War and to construct in their place a new library befitting the optimism that bloomed after Capital of Culture year.
Yesterday, Liverpudlians entering the new library for the first time discovered a cathedral of learning in which visitors are carried upwards via a crisscross of stairs and escalators to the new glass dome, from where they can step out on to a new rooftop terrace that has opened up a new city view to St George’s Hall and beyond.
From the busy and cheerful ground floor entrance with its cafe serving the best Crank’s sandwiches and good coffee, if you turn right you’ll find that the old International library has been transformed into a warm and welcoming children’s library, called Discover. Each area of the new building has been given a name with a crisp 21st century ring: Imagine is where you’ll find music and films on DVD; Archive is the place to go to learn about local history, trace your family tree or research the public records; Enquire is the snappily-titled reference section with computers, iPads and Internet access; on the top floor, Meet is where spaces can be reserved for training, reading groups or meetings.
There was so much to take in, but we were all inevitably drawn to that once-cloistered sanctum where the treasures lie. The 19th century heart of the library has been buffed up, but still be instantly recognisable to the Victorian benefactors who gifted this great library to the people of Liverpool, irrespective of class or social standing. I’ve told in another post how Liverpool reformers played a key part in the early 19th century movement for the provision of free public libraries. William Brown was an Irish-born businessman who, after a lifetime as a leading member of Liverpool society and with a reputation for speaking his mind in support of provision of public services, donated the entire cost of building Liverpool’s first free public library.
Brown’s gift, though generous, was not enough: it didn’t cover the cost of buying books for the library. However, his business partner, Joseph Shipley, who had retired to his home town in Delaware, sent £1,000 ‘as an old resident of Liverpool’. Amongst the items bought with that money were the drawings of Native Americans by Caitlin – and the ‘double elephant folio’ of Audubon’s Birds of America. It cost £168 back then, but is now the world’s most expensive book, worth millions.
Until yesterday, I hadn’t questioned how that treasure came to be in the possession of the city. I thought it had perhaps been a random choice. But, from a souvenir booklet published to mark yesterday’s opening, I learn that there is a real Liverpool connection. Having failed to raise money in America to publish his work, in 1826 Audubon had travelled to Liverpool seeking backers. Among those offering their support were the philanthropists William Rathbone and William Roscoe.
The volume will now be on permanent display in the Oak Room, in a climate-controlled showcase, one page turned weekly. Symbolic of the way new technology is fully integrated with more traditional library elements, situated nearby is a large touch screen panel which allows you to browse all the images in the folio.
There are other treasures in the Oak Room, part of the Hornby Library, an Edwardian extension opened in 1906 (the opening recorded in a beautiful Art Nouveau plaque). There are original watercolours made by Edward Lear during his travels to Italy, a book printed by William Caxton, and possibly the world’s first printed book of poetry, a Petrach volume printed in Venice in 1470. Other historic items on display in the Hornby Library include King John’s Charter founding Liverpool in 1207, a letter signed by Elizabeth I, and a Shakespeare second folio.
Alongside the wood-panelled rooms of the Hornby Library is the glorious Picton Library, opened in 1879 and lined with oak bookcases reached by climbing winding wrought iron stairs. Its circular design was based on the British Museum’s reading room, and, with its domed ceiling and reading tables with ornamental oak columns topped by inverted umbrellas of opal glass, it is a magnificent space. This was the first public building in the city to be lit by electric light, and when it opened housed no novels or light reading that might discourage serious study. To enter here back then, you had to observe a dress code.
I remember the old public records office being busy and overcrowded, with space for little else but the shelves of archive materials and the desks where you could whizz your way through microfilms of local newspapers. Now, the new Archive area is brightly-lit and spacious – with the added bonus of well-chosen displays of materials from the archives which once only serious researchers would have seen. The example everyone is drawn to as if by a magnet is the essay on the Coronation entered in a schools competition in 1953 by 10-year-old Paul McCartney. He won a prize for it – quite rightly, with its neat handwriting, impeccable grammar and arresting opening paragraph describing the massacre, at the coronation of William the Conqueror, of Saxons whom the Normans considered had displayed insufficient respect for the new king. He came here, to Central Library, to collect his prize. There are fascinating displays, too, of Everton and Liverpool FC memorabilia and of contemporary maps and letters relating to the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester railway in 1830.
Later, in the evening, we came back into town for LightNight, the increasingly-successful arts and culture extravaganza in which venues in the city stay open until midnight, and there are lightshows all over the place. We went to a cathedral of the spirit first, before once again joining the crowds thronging Liverpool’s new cathedral of the mind.
In the nave of the Anglican cathedral, throngs were tracing the lines of a candle-lit labyrinth. It wasn’t, perhaps, the perfect opportunity for quiet reflection that labyrinths have represented for centuries in cathedrals and other spaces, but I’m always awestruck by the interior of the cathedral. Is it the last one ever built, anywhere in the world? Outside, the Oratory was illuminated by Fragments, a series of projections across two sides of the former chapel to St James’s Cemetery created by light artist Andy McKeown from photographs of the Cathedral’s stained glass windows transformed into slow moving, brightly coloured kaleidoscopes.
Fittingly, as we emerged from the cathedral a beautiful sunset lit up the sky over the river in resplendent mauves and pinks. Heading down into town, the streets were thronged with people making their way to one of the LightNight events. This is a brilliant idea that makes the place feel magical and joyous.
Then it was down the hill to William Brown Street to show friends around the new library and then to see the outside of the building illuminated by animations of classic books such as Alice in Wonderland chosen from a spinning book shelf projected onto the circular exterior of the Picton library. Each time one of the books was chosen, a projection visualizing the book would appear on the main library’s façade.
On seeing the interior of the new library, local lad Frank Cottrell Boyce commented: ‘Coming to Liverpool Central Library is like going to meet your gran, and finding she’s turned into Beyonce’. Sometimes, living here now, the whole city feels like that. Liverpool is still one of the poorest cities in Britain, and it’s bearing the brunt of the government’s cuts in local council spending. Yet, compared with the place we knew in the 1970s and 1980s, a place that the media and the metropolitan elite stigmatised as a byword for everything that was wrong with cities, this city feels alive and determined to survive. In my head I hear Steve Earle singing the song he wrote to celebrate New Orleans after Katrina:
This city will never die
Just as long as our heart is strong
Like a second line stepping high
Raising hell as we roll along
Like that day in October 1860, yesterday was a special day for Liverpool, a day for ordinary Liverpudlians to celebrate having a wonderful new library housed in a beautiful building. It’s not every day that a national newspaper gives over an editorial to commenting on an event up our way, but this was the Guardian:
The literary thoroughfare, paving the way to the door with tales from The Wind In the Willows to Gone with the Wind. The glass cases in the oak room, the stacks of the Picton, and the shaft of light that cuts through bookish murk from the airy new atrium. The pictures speak more eloquently than any words could about what Liverpool has achieved by restoring its central library. As it reopens on Friday, the splendour is redoubled at a time when other municipal centres of learning are shutting up shop. The blend of old and new is thrilling. Not just the bright modern interiors behind the restored facade, but the mix of digital access with cloth-bound books, and city records reaching back to the 1207 letters patent from King John, enticing settlers to build up the port. The Echo’s view that this is a secular cathedral – to rank with the huge Anglican one, St James Mount, and the Catholics’ Metropolitan – may sound excited, but it isn’t wrong.
But let’s not just celebrate our good fortune in acquiring a wonderful building. Let’s think, too, of what it symbolizes: an alternative to the mantra of austerity, cuts in local council spending and the shrinking of public services. It’s a beacon in rough times.
Gallery: the opening
Gallery: Light Night
- Liverpool Central Library opening: Bay TV report
- Hundreds attend the newly refurbished Liverpool Central Library: Bay TV report
- LightNight: Projections wow the crowds at Liverpool Central Library: Bay TV report
- Liverpool comes to life for LightNight arts and culture festival: Liverpool Echo report on LightNight 2013
- Public libraries: 150 years of advance is being destroyed
- Philip Pullman: the greedy ghost of profit and public libraries
- Jeanette Winterson …. the trouble with books