We know a thing or two about libraries in Liverpool. We gave the world the first public lending library (at the Lyceum on Bold Street) so these past few years without a central library has been tough. But we’re glad – and relieved – to report that the all new book repository above the grassy knoll of William Brown Street is a triumph. Think Reichstag on the Mersey and you’re close to the stunning, light filled new space that will greet visitors when it opens on May 17.
Within, state of the art gubbins merge seamlessly with Victorian cast iron, as the returned-to-original spec Picton reading room leads to a sleek row of iPads and computers. External walls are brought inside, their sorbet-coloured bricks bonded to glass and steel walkways (not unlike the atrium of the World Museum) and peeled back Victorian fittings are freed from their 1960s chipboard prisons. The horrid glass panels encasing the Picton’s whispering gallery, the murky corridors and blocked up windows have gone. It’s all rather magnificent.
The new-look Discover (formerly the International Library), is a magical children’s library with plump cushions and day-glo lighting, and the Hornby and Oak Rooms, open to the public for the first time, are buffed and beautiful: all french polished mahogany and scrubbed up stonework. This, dear readers, does not look like a place where books are incinerated, nor “the assembly hall of an academy for secret police”. It is a place of hushed awe.
Much of the praise for the library’s rebirth should be directed at head of libraries, Joyce Little. It was her indefatigable campaign that put the building’s refurb front centre when, in truth, the project had little buy-in from the Lib Dems (books not being quite as sexy as shops). Thank god she persevered. While our old library was much loved, its entrance was a mess, its disabled access dreadful, and its microfiche room was, er, what’s the opposite of Minority Report?
Clever new architectural touches – including a facade retention – has allowed the library to be completely remodelled behind its street-facing skin (and, as the old building was only a hasty rebuild after the blitz, it’s no great loss). The result is that the new library’s floors don’t meet the front of the building, resulting in an unbroken light well, from street-level to roof. The once-gloomy interior is flooded with light, even on a grey winter’s day.
“The aim is to bring people in, and to make the ground floor warm and welcoming,” Little says of the library’s ground floor ‘Read’ space, crammed with crime novels, historical romances, DVDs, PS3’s and the like: “We want this space to feel like a retail bookshop. We want to encourage everyone to come in, meet and socialise.”
Even, it seems, cruise ship passenger and day trippers: “Yes, we want the library to offer a new service for Liverpool, but we want it to be a visitor attraction in its own right,” Little says, pointing out the space where an ‘internationally branded cafe’ will sit (we’re assuming Costa Coffee, but we’ll wait and see. Churlish to say it should have been a Liverpool brand? Leafing through books to a pot of Leaf’s tea?).
The redevelopment of the Grade II* listed building comes complete with a dramatic new entrance: gone is the sandstone wall: in its place a processional route lined with stately lanterns, illuminating a path etched with classic film and book titles.
But it’s inside, with its free wi-fi, its Bose music systems, and its remodelled, temperature controlled archive (the city’s treasures now, poetically, safeguarded in the new gold box to the rear of the building), where you get a sense that the £50 million has been well spent. Yes, the floor space is smaller, but clever new mobile shelves allow more of the library’s collection to be wheeled out from storage.
And that’s before the books return – 40kms worth of shelving to be precise. When the library opens, we’ll be able to enjoy the Audobon book, Birds of America in a special glass case, with its pages turned once a week. The book’s valued at around £8 million, so we doubt you’ll be able to borrow it for a fortnight. We’ll have access to the Library’s complete archives – the largest outside of London, and request to see some of the earliest examples of printing in the world, from the 1400s, from Gutenberg and and Caxton, and a rare edition of the complete works of William Morris.
And, for the first time since the 1903’s, we’ll even be able to tell the time on the clock in the Picton: which has, finally, been fixed. Now there’s a metaphor for you.
Our tour ends on the rooftop terrace – where you’ll be able to sit out with a book on a summer’s evening (the library will be open til 9pm in the week) and take in the rooftops of the city. A municipal library – the go-to place in the city again? Don’t bet against it.
“It’s fantastic,” Little says, “I can’t sleep at nights, I’m so excited about its opening.”
Yes, you can be sure. Books have a safe future in Liverpool.