A Cautious Welcome to Leicester City’s New Library

Leicester City library

Artist's impression of Leicester City's new library entrance

Is a library its building or its books? Leicester City Council decided it was the books and put in motion the finalisation of plans to amalgamate their libraries into one. The Goldsmith’s Music library had already been merged so the decision to also merge the Belvoir Street library into the Bishop Street Reference library was not a surprise. The only concerns were whether the new Central Library would be big enough, what the opening hours would be and how much library stock would be disposed of in the process.

Bishop Street was the natural choice for the site of the new Central Library, not just for its central location on Town Hall Square, but also because it was the site of the original Carnegie Library built in 1905. Plans included the restoration of the original access with its mosaic floor and painted glass skylight that had been tucked away in a back office.

Carnegie libraries were built with money donated by Andrew Carnegie, who was a businessman who invested in the both the railroad and steel markets. He was born in Dunfermline in 1835 and emigrated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1848, although he still spent six months each year in Scotland. When he sold his share in the Carnegie Steel Company in 1901 he came one of the richest men in the world. He funded the building of around 3000 public libraries in America, Canada and Britain and set up the Carnegie Trust for Universities of Scotland, the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust, the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, Carnegie Institutes in Pittsburgh and Washington, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The first Carnegie Library was built in Dunfermline on 1883.

Carnegie Libraries were not built to a set style but each was accessed through a prominent doorway at the top of steps and most had a lantern outside thought to symbolise enlightenment and elevation through learning. Carnegie firmly believed in a society based on merit and also that anyone should have access to learning through libraries. Wishing to avoid politics, he funded separate libraries in the Southern US States so non whites would still have access to a library. His libraries generally used open stacks for books so users could freely browse and a centrally located librarians’ desk so users could easily find a librarian if they needed assistance.

Leicester City Council’s plan to provide all library services – lending, reference, information services, e-books, and public access to computer facilities – is in keeping with Carnegie’s purpose. There will be a Learning Annexe for informal learning and a reserve stock area in the basement for less well used and specialist titles. Longer opening hours will be offered, although the exact hours aren’t yet finalised. There are also plans for improved signage and programmes of author events, plus a nod to user comfort with the availability of public toilets and drinks machines.

However, a library isn’t just its books. A good balance of stock is vital – many novels have been based on research carried out in libraries – but the library itself is more than that. A well-used library has a welcoming atmosphere, librarians who are familiar with the layout and systems of the particular library and offers space to explore and learn. Libraries need to be used. Is a childhood complete without the rite of passage of being shushed by a librarian?

So a cautious welcome: the building’s there, the staff are there, but is the library there?

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