Liverpool Central Library is simply stunning. A mixture of modern and 19th-century architecture that displays the length of our love affair with books. I'm not surprised the number of visitors has increased since re-opening in 2013, and I can picture myself immersed in the shelves and shelves of books in St George's Hall and staring up, open-mouthed in awe at the glass ceiling of the new atrium.
Tell us about your library and the area it sits in.
Liverpool Central Library is a unique blend of historic and modern architecture. The building dates back to 1860 and various impressive additions have been made over the years. These were all faithfully and fully restored in a major capital project from 2010 to 2013. This made it possible to open up some areas to the public for the first time, such as the Oak Room, and to improve, level and make clearer the links between the various buildings. Part of the interior of one of the buildings was badly damaged in the Blitz of May 1941. This was rebuilt in the late 1950s but not in a way which met modern needs so permission was obtained to demolish that internal section and start afresh. The result is a spectacular modern atrium with criss-crossing stairs and it gives a wow factor, floods the building with daylight, and invites visitors to explore. This was also part of the major project completed in 2013 as was adding a state-of-the-art archive repository. Visitors often comment on how well everything blends and flows together. Visitor numbers have doubled since we re-opened and we welcomed 887,000 visitors in 2018. We offer something for all age groups and we have been successful in attracting young children and teenagers. We have also become a very popular tourist destination receiving great reviews and ratings on Trip Advisor. Many partners ask to work with us and we are able to deliver a wide range of exhibitions and events.
The area which Liverpool Central Library is located in is itself magnificent and full of history, superb architecture and character. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is in the Cultural Quarter and a Conservation area of the city centre. We are on one of the finest streets of public buildings in the UK with an incredible number of grand Victorian and Edwardian buildings in classical style, including The Walker Art Gallery and World Museum Liverpool. These act as the perfect foil for the monumental Grade One listed St George’s Hall and for St John’s Gardens opposite us. We are near to the mainline railway station and many bus routes so we are easy to find and with good access for visitors. In addition, there are ever increasing numbers of residents living in the city centre, including young families, and a large student population, so we are their local neighbourhood library.
Describe your library in three words.
Magnificent, Memorable, Magical.
Apart from plenty of reading material, what other services does your library offer?
We provide a public library and archive service with extensive collections of millions of books and archives on about 35 km of shelving. Our offer also includes a Tourist Information Centre, cafe, free Wi-Fi and computers, printing, study spaces, bookable meeting rooms, and a roof terrace. There are books for lending, including graphic novels, large print and audio books, language courses, CDs and DVDs. There is a children's library in a transformed historic space with a large collection of books. Free events are put on during school holidays. There are extensive reference collections, some of which are housed in the magnificent circular Picton Reading Room. Special collections and rare books are held in the historic Oak Room and Hornby Library where exhibitions can be seen. Extensive archives from the 13th century onwards are held and family and local history can be researched. There is also a Business and IP Centre, Careers Advice sessions, a UK Visa and Immigration service, and a Family History Help Desk. A wide and highly popular range of events and exhibitions are put on by us and/or with a diverse range of partners. This includes a great Light Night offer when we open until midnight, an annual Makefest and a junior Makefest, an annual Book Art Fair and events, and many gigs including ones arranged as part of Get it Loud in Libraries.
What is the strangest book-related question your team has been asked?
A local author was researching for a book and wanted information on and to know the full story of “Mickey the Monkey.” It turned out that he was a chimpanzee at a small local zoological garden in the 1930s and became something of a celebrity. We found via copies of local newspapers that Mickey was encouraged to play football and smoke cigarettes, but could (very understandably!) lose his patience and temper at times. He escaped one day and went into the nearby school playground and surrounding area ending up on the roofs of houses and running amok.
If you were to become a character from a book for the day, who would it be and why?
Sherlock Holmes. To have keen observation when inspecting our building and stock; excellent problem-solving skills; rapid crossword support for users asking for help; playing the violin at some of the library’s many musical events.
What’s been the biggest surprise about working in a library?
Getting to meet, sit down and talk with Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh as part of a National Year of Reading event here in 1999. Also meeting other members of the royal family on different visits as well as many politicians, writers, artists, and musicians who have visited us and frequent work with TV and radio.
What are your top three must-reads?
Catch 22; Parkinson’s Law; The Rabbit Tetralogy by John Updike.
What is your favourite book from your childhood, and why did you love it?
Robinson Crusoe. I grew up in the city and loved to read this book for the escape which it offered, the sense of freedom and adventure, and the dream of living on a beautiful and remote island. Many aspects of life on the island seemed idyllic to me but there was also the need and means to survive, getting back to basics, and self-reliance. I also liked the TV series for children which was on air at around the same time as I was reading the book and the haunting music of the programme’s theme tune still often comes back to me.
Why are libraries such a vital link in our communities?
They are welcoming, free to use and trusted; they offer reading and information and a safe and unchallenged place to study or just sit; they offer something for all age groups; free access to IT and Wi-Fi is invaluable for all kinds of reasons; there are events, activities, exhibitions and courses for all and many of them are free; libraries are a place to exchange and find information and mutual support. You can be in a safe space, do your own thing but also be amongst others. Eric Klinenberg, the sociologist, summarises this very well in his book “Palaces for the People: How to build a more equal and united society” where a vision of the good city begins in the local library.