Liverpool Central Library reopens: inside the cathedral of learning

Liverpool Central Library reopens: inside the cathedral of learning

Light Night 9

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.

The new rooftop terrace

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.

Imagine: borrow music and films

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.

Audubon’s Birds of America: now on permanent public display

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.

King John’s charter of 1207, granting ‘Liuerpul’ official town status

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.

Paul McCartney’s winning 1953 Coronation essay

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.

Archive: learn about the history of Liverpool

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.

Light Night: Fragments at the Oratory

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.

Light Night 3
Light Night 2013: sunset over the Mersey

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.

Light Night: outside the new Central Library building

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

See also

Public libraries: 150 years of advance is being destroyed

Public libraries: 150 years of advance is being destroyed

Protesters and police clash outside Liverpool Town Hall (Liverpool Echo)

Protesters and police clash outside Liverpool Town Hall (Liverpool Echo)

Away in London for a few days, we returned to Liverpool to the news that the City Council has voted to close half the city’s libraries.  Liverpool has 19 libraries at present but the council aims to save around £1 million (from April 2014) by closing ten.  The school uniform grant is going too – and there are plans to sell off some of the council nurseries.

It’s a Labour council, but no-one believes these are Labour cuts.  With 80% of the council’s funding coming from central government and only 11% from council tax, it’s the Tory-led coalition at Westminster that is depriving Liverpudlians (an those who live in other northern towns and cities) of  their hard-won public services.  Mayor Joe Anderson warned that more cuts were to come. There’s a jaw-dropping table in the booklet ‘Budget News’ that’s just come through every letter box in the city:

Savings needed year by year

  • 2011-12: £91.4 million (delivered)
  • 2012-13: £50 million (on target)
  • 2013-14: £32 million
  • 2014-15: £46 million
  • 2015-16: £35 million
  • 2016-17: £36 million

Deputy Mayor Paul Brant said after the Council meeting: ‘We have, with a heavy heart, to balance the books. We’re elected to do the best we can with the cards we’re dealt by the government and we have done that.’  He said the decision to scrap the school uniform grant was ‘heart-breaking’ but the council was ‘just unable to continue to afford it any longer’.

The broadcaster Joan Bakewell has described the planned library closures in areas like Liverpool and Newcastle as a ‘cultural catastrophe’ and called on Culture secretary Maria Miller to prevent them:

Given the disproportionately heavy cuts to local authority funding in the north of England, when will the secretary of state use her considerable reserve powers to stop this cultural catastrophe?

Our working class forebears in London, Birmingham and towns across the north of England struggled throughout the years of the industrial revolution for the right to free education and access to subscription-free public libraries.  Even before the first public libraries were established, working class organisations set up a range of facilities designed to support mass education. This month will be the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Making of the English Working Class, EP Thompson’s pioneering history of working class self-activity during the period 1780 to 1832.  In describing how working class groups established study groups and libraries, Thompson observed that ‘the working class made itself as much as it was made’ through organisations like the Corresponding Societies in the 1790s to the Mechanics’ Institutes of the 1830s.  In one example, he notes an ambitious  venture – the opening of a Temple of Reason in 1796, at Nichol’s Sale Room in Whitecross Street, London. Its members furnished it and built up a library.

Liverpool Mechanics’ Institute building on Mount Street

Knowledge was power, so artisans and workers who could not afford subscription libraries created Mechanics’ Institutes that incorporated collections of books, newspapers and journals. The first library of this type was the Birmingham Artisans’ Library, formed in 1823.

The Liverpool Mechanics’ Institute was founded in 1832, dedicated to providing educational opportunities for working men, mainly through evening classes. Lectures covered topics ranging from Arctic exploration to Shakespeare and philosophy. Luminaries like Charles Dickens and Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered talks and readings.  Eventually the building on Mount Street became home to Liverpool Institute High School for Boys, attended by Paul McCartney.

Some Mechanics’ Institutes eventually became public libraries or were given to local public libraries after the Public Libraries Act 1850 was passed. They were the beginning of the idea of a free public library service.

The Public Libraries Act 1850 was the first to give local boroughs the power to establish free public libraries. One of the MPs who promoted the bill in Parliament was William Ewart, who had been born in Liverpool in 1798.  In the 1840s, Ewart, by then MP for Dumfries, turned his attention to working class education, and joined forces with the MP for Salford, Joseph Brotherton, and the Chartist, Edward Edwards, to draft a Public Libraries Act. Ewart faced considerable hostility from the Conservatives in the Commons who objected that the rate-paying middle and upper classes would be paying for a service that would be mainly used by the working class.

Whereas William Ewart wanted all boroughs to have the power to finance public libraries, the legislation only applied to those boroughs with populations of over 10,000 where the consent of two-thirds of local ratepayers had been obtained in a referendum. A rate of no more than a halfpenny in the pound could be levied, and the money raised could not be used to buy books – only for accommodation. Nevertheless, the Act was the first legislative step in the creation of universal free access to information and literature, and was indicative of the moral, social and educative concerns of the time. The legacy of the Act can be followed through subsequent legislation that built on and expanded the powers granted in 1850 and the public libraries that exist in the United Kingdom today can trace their origins back to this Act.

Working class access to free public libraries received a major boost at the start of the 20th century through the grants to local councils (including Liverpool) made by Andrew Carnegie.  When Andrew Carnegie died in 1919, more than half the local authorities in Great Britain had received grants and over 380 public library buildings in the UK as a whole were associated with his name.

A couple of years ago, when the attack on public libraries was just beginning, author Zadie Smith spoke in defence of her local library and public libraries in general:

I know I would never have seen a single university carrel if I had not grown up living a 100 yards from the library in Willesden Green. Local libraries are gateways not only to other libraries, but to other lives. … It always has been and always will be very difficult to explain to people who have money what it means not to have money.  ‘If education matters to you,’ they ask, ‘and if libraries matter to you, then why wouldn’t you be willing to pay for them if they matter so much?’ They’re the kind of people who believe that value can only be measured in money. … Like many people without any money, we relied on our public services – not as a frippery, not as a pointless addition, not as an excuse for personal stagnation, but as a necessary gateway to better opportunities.

The Conservative response to Zadie Smith’s speech came from Shaun Bailey who at the time was ‘ambassador for the ‘big society’ project’; he mendaciously retorted that, ‘it isn’t the government that decide if your library stays open or not, it’s actually your local authority … that’s why this Big Society thing is important, because you are close to those people for an electoral point of view and have more sway over them’. Tell that to councils in the north like Liverpool or Newcastle doing their best to protect local services while the money from central government is slashed.

A glorious achievement of working class self-advancement is steadily being dismantled.  By the very same people who resisted its development in the first place: the rich elite of bankers’ friends and the public school-educated that now governs.

Carl Sagan in Cosmos:

The health of our civilisation, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.

See also

Jeanette Winterson …. the trouble with books

Jeanette Winterson …. the trouble with books
Jeanette Winterson outside Accrington Library
Jeanette Winterson outside Accrington Library

The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.
– Mrs Winterson

302 libraries (263 buildings and 39 mobiles) are currently under threat or have been closed/left council control since April 2012, out of 4612 in the UK.
Public Libraries News

At the beginning of December I watched the edition of Imagine in which Jeanette Winterson returned with Alan Yentob to the scenes of her extraordinary childhood in Accrington, the subject of her first book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and one to which she returned in her recent memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. I had heard Winterson read extracts from the memoir when it was serialized on Radio 4’s Book of the Week.  Moved by Alan Yentob’s sensitive film, I rushed off to buy the paperback.

The broad outline of the story Jeanette Winterson tells in her new book will be familiar to anyone who has read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (or seen the TV adaptation).  I wrote a bit about the book after hearing it serialized on the radio; in this post I want to focus on what Winterson writes about how the power of books helped her to survive her bleak childhood: adopted by the tyrannical Pentecostalist Mrs Winterson, she was beaten, often hungry, locked out all night on the doorstep, deprived of love. Among the many things denied to the young girl are books.  She is not allowed to read books, because ‘the trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late’, but she finds them in Accrington library where she begins to read methodically through ‘English Literature from A-Z’.

Jeanette Winterson and Alan Yentob survey Accrington
Jeanette Winterson and Alan Yentob survey Accrington

In the Imagine film, Alan Yentob returned with Jeanette Winterson tracing some of the key events she recounts in Why Be Happy? How she found literature, fell in love with a girl, and escaped to university; and the story of her recent breakdown and attempt to take her own life, followed by her quest to find her birth mother.

There are many marvellous passages in Why Be Happy?  Some of the funniest and most most moving describe the importance of books in enabling Jeanette to survive her cruel childhood:

There were six books in our house. One was the Bible and two were commentaries on the Bible. My mother was a pamphleteer by temperament, and she knew that sedition and controversy are fired by printed matter. Ours was not a secular house, and my mother was determined that I should have no secular influences.

I asked my mother why we couldn’t have books, and she said, “The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.” I thought to myself, “Too late for what?”

This is the story of someone who was empowered by books – saved, not by the word of God, but by the words she read in the books in the local library. In Accrington it was a stone building, opened in 1908 with money from the Carnegie Foundation.  In the Imagine film, Winterson returns to the library, with its carved busts of Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer and Dante outside and the words ‘KNOWLEDGE IS POWER’ on a giant stained-glass window within.

Jeanette Winterson inside Accrington Library
Jeanette Winterson stands in front of the stained glass window in Accrington Library

Accrington Library window

Accrington Library window inscription

The stained glass window which dominates the stairway to the first floor was designed by Gustav Hiller, a Liverpool-based designer. Winterson never forgot the words inscribed on the window:

Oh for a booke
And a shadie nooke
Eyther in doore or out
For a jollie goode booke
Whereon to looke
Is better to me than golde

Winterson recalls how, in hours spent in the library, she worked her way through the fiction section, starting with A for Austen. But she also bought herself books, which she hid under her mattress in layers. She was, she recalls, ‘going up in the world’ until her mother found the hidden treasures, threw them all out of the window into the backyard, and set light to them, leaving only charred fragments behind:

I used to work on the market on Saturdays, and after school on Thursdays and Fridays, packing up. I used the money to buy books. I smuggled them inside and hid them under the mattress. Anybody with a single bed, standard size, and a collection of paperbacks, standard size, will know that 72 per layer can be accommodated under the mattress. By degrees my bed began to rise visibly, like the Princess and the Pea, so that soon I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than to the floor. My mother was suspicious-minded, but even if she had not been, it was clear that her daughter was going up in the world.

One night she came in and saw the corner of a paperback sticking out from under the mattress. She pulled it out and examined it with her flashlight. It was an unlucky choice; DH Lawrence, Women in Love. Mrs Winterson knew that Lawrence was a satanist and a pornographer, and, hurling it out of the window, she rummaged and rifled and I came tumbling off the bed while she threw book after book out of the window and into the backyard. I was grabbing books and trying to hide them, the dog was running off with them, my dad was standing helpless in his pyjamas.

When she had done, she picked up the little paraffin stove we used to heat the bathroom, went into the yard, poured paraffin over the books and set them on fire. I watched them blaze and blaze and remember thinking how warm it was, how light, on the freezing Saturnian January night. I had bound them all in plastic because they were precious. Now they were gone.

In the morning there were stray bits of texts all over the yard and in the alley. Burnt jigsaws of books. I collected some of the scraps. What does Eliot say? These fragments I have shored against my ruins …

I realised something important: whatever is on the outside can be taken away at any time. Only what is inside you is safe. I began to memorise texts. We had always memorised long chunks of the Bible, and it seems that people in oral traditions have better memories than those who rely on printed text. The rhythm and image of poetry make it easier to recall than prose, easier to chant. But I needed prose too, and so I made my own concise versions of 19th century novels – going for the talismanic, not worrying much about the plot. I had lines inside me – a string of guiding lights. I had language.

For Winterson, this event was foundational. Literature had entered her soul:

The books had gone, but they were objects; what they held could not be so easily destroyed. What they held was already inside me, and together we would get away. And standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next cold morning, I understood that there was something else I could do. ‘Fuck it,’ I thought, ‘I can write my own.’

There’s an irony here, of course.  It was Mrs Winterson who made Jeanette into a writer. By attempting to stunt her daughter’s emotional and imaginative growth with fear and religion, she succeeded in doing the exact opposite. She created someone who learned to live in her head, and to love, trust and remember words: ‘Fuck it, I can write my own’.

Jeanette Winterson in Accrington
Jeanette Winterson outside her childhood home in Accrington

At around the same time that I saw the Imagine film (which you can see in full on YouTube – at the end of this post), I had read extracts in The Guardian from the inaugural Reading Agency lecture delivered by Jeanette Winterson.   It’s an impassioned speech in which she calls on society and the government to support our beleaguered public library system.  She points out that libraries cost about a billion a year to run right now. Make it £2 billion, she says, and charge Google, Amazon and Starbucks all that tax on their profits in the UK.   Or maybe those companies could ‘do an Andrew Carnegie’ and ‘build us new kinds of libraries for a new kind of future in a fairer and better world’.  This is what she said:

The Accrington Public Library was a stone-built, fully stocked library, built on the values of an age of self-help and betterment. It was built in 1907 with money from the Carnegie Foundation. Outside were the carved heads of Shakespeare and Milton, Chaucer and Dante. Inside were art nouveau tiles and a gigantic stained glass window that said useful things such as “INDUSTRY AND PRUDENCE CONQUER”.

The library held all the Eng lit classics, and quite a few surprises such as Gertrude Stein. I had no idea of what to read or in what order, so, staring at the shelves that said “English Literature in Prose, A-Z”, I just started alphabetically. Thank God her last name was Austen …

The Accrington Public Library ran on the Dewey Decimal System, which meant that books were meticulously catalogued, except for pulp fiction which everybody despised. So romance was just given a pink strip and all romance was simply chucked unalphabetically on to the romance shelves. Sea stories were treated the same way, but with a green strip. Horror had a black strip. Mystery stories shlock-style had a white strip, but the librarian would never file Chandler or Highsmith under mystery – they were literature, just as Moby-Dick was not a sea story and Jane Eyre was not romance.

Humour had a section too … with a wavy orange giggle strip. On the humour shelves, I will never know why or how, was Gertrude Stein, presumably because she wrote what looked like nonsense …

I used to help out at the library. I was a rough, tough kid, not much good at school, except for words. We had six books in our house but I had the library. I loved that building – built for the working classes – built for me. I loved the sense of energetic quiet. When I left home at 16 and was living in a Mini, I went to the library all evening until it closed.

My own Carnegie library in Accrington is still open. I visited recently. There are far fewer books. The lovely separate children’s library has been closed. There are no longer classical music concerts or lectures – Pitman Painters’ style. There are computers of course and plenty of people coming in and out. The library is doing its best according to its remit of being a community centre with books. What the library isn’t any more is the place of unassailable knowledge I encountered as a kid.

Andrew Carnegie was a crofter’s lad who emigrated from Scotland to America and became a billionaire. But he believed in books and the chances they offered, and he wanted libraries to be the universities anyone could attend and no one would ever have to leave. He paid for 660 libraries in the UK and Ireland – and 1,500 or so in America.

“Man does not live by bread alone. I have known millionaires starving for lack of the nutriment which alone can sustain all that is human in man, and I know workmen, and many so-called poor men, who revel in luxuries beyond the power of those millionaires to reach. It is the mind that makes the body rich. There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else.”

He was wrong about that – the underclass that possesses no money and nothing else either is the most destitute on earth. That underclass is growing – here in Britain. In fact, Accrington is second on the list of the poverty map, according to Experian Public Research, analysing data for the Guardian in June this year. So it would seem straightforward then, to plough what money there is into alleviating poverty and providing essential services.

Here’s Tony Durcan “director of culture, libraries and lifelong learning, Newcastle City Council”, in the news just now, over £7m-worth of lethal cuts to Newcastle Library Services: “Faced with agonising decisions about child protection, care for the elderly and emptying bins, where do libraries, leisure centres and culture rank? I think we all know the answer.”

Do we? Poor Durcan – it’s not his fault – but I think we should look more closely at this answer, and therefore at the question itself. Let’s go to Manchester in 1852 – where the first public lending library in England opened. The 1850 Library Act allowed local authorities to spend a penny in the pound on libraries. Dickens took the train up there for the opening. Twenty-two thousand working people helped raised the money to buy books for the library.

A hundred years after Engels was standing in the sewage of the Manchester slums, imagining a world where men and women would be more than useful objects, the second world war was nearing its end in Britain. John Maynard Keynes was overseeing the beginnings of the Arts Council in 1944 – which sounds like a crazy priority at the end of a world war, when the county was literally in ruins and Britain had no money at all – and there was food rationing. But the Labour party had a vision for postwar Britain, and education, art and culture for everyone were at the heart of that vision. A national theatre, free entry to museums, the expansion of the BBC. The Arts Council’s first slogan in 1946 was “The Best for the Most”. So we should ask ourselves questions about austerity budgets and what Britain can or can’t afford.

As our Government tells us that this wrecked economy can’t afford to pay a living wage to the poorest people in society, what can we offer them? They can take their kids to the park, perhaps. They might be able to go swimming or play sport at their leisure centre, find a football pitch. Yes, these things are important. But it is just as important that there should be a library as the centre of a web of cultural services, for kids with nowhere to go, kids who don’t have books or a room of their own, for stressed-out parents, for students needing a place to study and find more than Google can offer, for older people who want a safe place outside of the house, for community groups and reading groups, for lectures, for discussions, and of course for computers and IT.

Libraries across the UK are trying to offer as much as they can to the communities they serve, and particularly to people on low pay and with few resources, but there is confusion around the role of libraries: what are they? How should they change and develop? What place do they have in a modern internet-based world where the book itself might be disappearing?

When we look back at the latest cuts in Newcastle, we can see where this confusion starts – “Libraries, leisure and culture”. But culture is not leisure – though you need leisure to pursue culture – and libraries are not leisure in the way that a sports centre is leisure. Libraries began with the highest purpose in mind – to educate through the agency of a book. The first public libraries were aspirational and proud. Libraries were not community centres with books in the way.

If we want libraries to flourish and take their place – I think their proper place in a modern society – we can’t make them compete with sports centres for resources, or survive by becoming culturally obsolete and socially relevant, replacing all their books with computer terminals.

Libraries have never been more inventive than they are right now. The Reading Agency partners with libraries across the UK to set up book groups – supported by publishers – to bring in kids, many of whom have never read any books outside school. Libraries are doing more educational work than ever. Libraries and literacy cannot be separated. I don’t see how this can be classed as “leisure”, nor do I see why we have to choose between getting our bins emptied and putting cash into libraries.

There is no excuse. Either we stop arguing and agree that libraries are doing their best to reinvent themselves and that with a bit of help – financial and ideological – they belong with the future, or we let them run down until they disappear because they become irrelevant to people’s lives.

As books themselves change, so the argument goes, does it not follow that libraries will change too? If books are not necessarily objects then perhaps libraries need not be either? Virtual libraries and online libraries can house ebooks and downloads and none of this takes up physical space and none of it is as costly as a building that houses books. The disappearing book and the disappearing library are about technology, aren’t they? Printing put books on the shelves, took them out of the private collections – usually church libraries – and into the hands of the world.

The wealthy will have books and access to books. The best universities will keep their magnificent libraries to be visited by those who can afford the fees. Is it downloads for everyone else? I want books to be visible. Hold a book in your hands and it is more than its content. Books as objects matter.

Ebooks are not an improvement; they are an addition. They can’t be used as an excuse to take books away from the everyday world and into the virtual world. We all know that browsing an index is nothing like being in a bookshop or a library. Libraries and publishers will come to an arrangement about ebook lending and that could work very well as a satellite service for library users – providing we keep Planet Library. For kids in particular, ebooks aren’t the answer. Put six picture books of front of a child and she’ll soon find her own way. Give her a library shelf of books and she can pull them out all over the floor. Early reading is physicality – the taste, smell, weight of books.

Who is going to pay for this new expanding network of libraries? These people’s palaces of books where everyone can go from early in the morning until late at night? Libraries cost about a billion a year to run right now. Make it two billion and charge Google, Amazon and Starbucks all that back tax on their profits here. Or if they want to go on paying fancy lawyers to avoid their moral duties, then perhaps those companies could do an Andrew Carnegie and build us new kinds of libraries for a new kind of future in a fairer and better world?

Sefton Park library

Andrew Carnegie, the American multi-millionaire was reckoned to be the richest man in the world in 1900, having made a great fortune in the US iron industry, centred on Pittsburgh.  Although a ruthless and exploitative employer, he came from a radical Scottish family and attempted to soften his reputation through philanthropy, in particular giving money to build public libraries, not only in the USA, but also in other parts of the world. He endowed 660 libraries in the British Isles at a cost of some $12,000,000. Carnegie’s philanthropy was restricted to paying for the buildings alone: books and staff had to be provided by the library authority.

Toxteth library
Toxteth library

In Liverpool’s case, Andrew Carnegie personally funded six branch libraries, including our nearest one – Sefton Park library, a lovely mock-Tudor half-timbered building from 1911 which, like the other Carnegie libraries in Liverpool, was designed by Thomas Shelmerdine, architect and City Surveyor of Liverpool (he also designed the gates and lodge at the Ullet Road entrance to Sefton Park).  The other Carnegie libraries in Liverpool are the Walton, Lister Drive, Garston, Everton and Old Swan branches.  Most are Grade II listed.

In 1902, Carnegie came to Liverpool to open Toxteth library.  This is another elegant building of red brick and stone trim designed by Thomas Shelmerdine, though not actually financed by Carnegie.  The library with its two large Venetian windows and mural – an allegory with Knowledge enthroned – was recently beautifully restored.  A copper plaque in Celtic Art Nouveau style commemorates the opening by Andrew Carnegie.

The recently restored mural, Toxteth library
The recently restored mural, Toxteth library

When he came to Toxteth, Carnegie had financed one library building in Liverpool – Everton, the second branch library in Liverpool, opened in 1896. He had tremendous admiration for Liverpool’s pioneering of free public libraries.  Speaking at the opening ceremony of Toxteth library, Carnegie stated, ‘I like a free library because it is free. It is a grand symbol of true genuine democracy’. Because he hadn’t paid for the building, he was able to add:

This is more an exhibition of democracy than perhaps any library I have spoken in, because it is the gift of no citizen, of no man; but it is from foundation stone to turret paid for by taxation, so that the poorest citizen of Liverpool contributes in his proportion as much as the multi-millionaire in support not of a library, but of his library.

In his speech, Carnegie paid tribute to William Ewart, MP and prominent Liverpool merchant, who, along with the Chartist Edward Edwards – a former bricklayer who had educated himself in the libraries of the Mechanics’ Institute – did more than anyone to push through the Public Libraries Act of 1850, which empowered local councils to raise a halfpenny rate to fund free local libraries. Carnegie set out the philosophy that underpinned his support for public libraries with these words:

I like a free library because it is free. It is a grand symbol of true genuine democracy … Such an institution as this has a far-reaching influence beyond the mere reading of books. I say it goes near to the springs of man, the foundation of that indomitable independence to do or die, to stand or fall, that makes man man. But you do not consider a free library only great in what it does for those who read its books. It is great for what it does in enabling the poor citizens of Liverpool in passing through her streets to look up and say, ‘Yes, I am a Landlord there.’ That is the thing that tells.

105 Duke Street: from 1852 to 1860 served as Liverpool’s first public library.

Following the Act, Manchester, then Liverpool, opened Britain’s first free public libraries in 1852. Liverpool at this time was not without libraries, but, being either subscription libraries or connected with learned societies, they were not accessible to the working class. On 18 October 1860, a day marked as a general holiday, the formal opening ceremony of the Liverpool Free Library and Museum on William Brown street took place.

Liverpool was also the town to develop a branch network, taking library provision to areas outside the city centre, beginning with the Kensington branch library opened in 1890, followed by Everton library in 1896.  Peter Cowell was Liverpool’s Chief Librarian in these early years and wrote of the opening of Everton library, in his History of Liverpool Public Libraries, published in 1903:

The opening of this branch library seemed to produce for some half-mile round it quite an epidemic of reading. Young and old resorted to the library in such large numbers that the spacious rooms provided in it were constantly crowded to excess. This was particularly the case with the boys’ room. No doubt the novelty of such a room, for this was the first of its kind provided by the Library Committee, had much to do with its wonderful success. The choice of numerous illustrated books and periodicals with their stories of voyage and adventure was a thing so new to most, if not all of the young folk, that unbounded pleasure and delight was taken in simple, rapid inspection of the illustrations, and then exchanging the books for others. After a while this fickleness with the majority of the boys gradually wore off, and they began to take pleasure in the contents of the books, and to read for the enjoyment it gave them.

Today, the building, described by Pevsner as ‘unusually excellent’, an eclectic mix of Jacobean and Arts and Crafts styles, is derelict, though plans to secure millions of pounds for its restoration and reuse have taken a big step forward following a grant of  initial development funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Everton library
Everton library on St Domingo Road

The prospects for another Carnegie library in Lister Drive, abandoned and boarded up since 2006, are also looking up after a plan to transform it into a hub for the local community came top in a competition organised by the Heritage Investment Working Group.

Lister Drive library
Lister Drive library today
Lister Drive library in 1922

The remaining Carnegie libraries in Liverpool – the Walton, Garston and Old Swan branches – are still serving their local communities, often as multipurpose centres. Walton library, for example, offers a wide range of services, sometimes in partnership with other agencies, such as a Drop In Study Centre and a City Council One Stop Shop.

Walton library

Garston library, another architectural gem designed, like all the Carnegie libraries, by Thomas Shelmerdine, also doubles as a One Stop Shop.  It opened in 1909 when the library boasted 8,900 books, ‘including works of interest to the student, the artisan and mechanic and the general reader’ according to the launch prospectus. The document also boasts that ‘the building will be suitably warmed in the winter time by a low pressure system of radiators’. Originally, women and children were not allowed to read in the same room as men, and had a separate area.

Garston library

Old Swan library opened in 1913 as a reading room, with books originally brought in by hand cart from the nearby Lister Drive library. An extension was added in the 1960s to create a children’s library, and the building was renovated a few years ago with new computer facilities, free internet and email facilities.  Again, the Tudor-style half-timbered design is by Thomas Shelmerdine.

Old Swan library
Old Swan library

In 2012, the Carnegie UK Trust commissioned research which shows that people still love their libraries, but – in a thoughtful discussion paper entitled A New Chapter – Public Library Services in the 21st Century (pdf, opens in new window) – the Trust argues that public libraries can’t stand still in a changing world: the public library service is at a crossroads and change is needed to respond to reduced levels of public spending, the challenges and opportunities of the digital age, and changes in people’s lifestyles and patterns of behaviour.

Jeanette Winterson: My Monster and Me (the complete Imagine film)

See also