Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Liverpool's Central Library Reopens

By John Bradley (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The long-awaited re-opening of Liverpool’s Central Library took place on Friday, 17th May. Restoration was complete, the hoardings came down and once again the library’s 1860s façade was revealed in all its glory. The highlight of the opening was late on Friday evening when, in an interactive sound and light animation, book shelves were projected onto this historic façade. Much to my disappointment, I wasn’t able to stay in the city late enough to view this, but I certainly made the most of my daytime visit.

The approach to the entrance via the ‘literary pavement’ is impressive, I found myself mentally ticking off the books I’ve read; and those still to be enjoyed. Once inside, the visitor is met by the spectacular sight of the four-storey atrium; there was a buzz of excitement as necks were craned, oohs and aahs were heard, and cameras constantly clicked.

What to see first? The escalator to the first floor beckoned and here, I think, is where tourists will head for. There is no doubt that this building will become an important visitor attraction as well as a working library because on the first floor are situated the impressive Picton Reading Room, Hornby Library, and Oak Room. The Reading Room was the first library in the UK to be lit by electric light.

It is impossible to convey the magnificence of these rooms in words; if you can’t visit them in person then you must see the photographs on the library’s website to get at least an impression of their grandeur.

The building’s design and architecture does justice to the treasures it holds. Treasures that for three years have been housed in secure storage, deep in a Cheshire mine the size of 700 football pitches and 150 metres below ground. Looking at the sheer number of books in the Picton Reading Room alone, it is almost impossible to imagine the logistics involved in removing them into storage, keeping them safe, with controlled temperature and humidity, then returning them when the refurbishment was complete.

And of course it was not just the number of books and artefacts that needed to be considered, but their value and historic importance. On display are the original seals used when King John awarded the city its Charter – or to be more exact, Letters Patent giving it trading rights – in 1207, together with part of the actual document. Difficult to imagine Liverpool at that time, a small village consisting of only seven streets with between 100 and 200 inhabitants!

Also on display are documents dating back to the 15th century; some of the earliest examples of the printed word; a letter from Nelson and, perhaps the piece de resistance, John James Audubon’s illustrated Birds of America. The Central Library has a full, four-volume set – there are only a few complete sets in existence – of what is said to be one of the most expensive (and surely one of the biggest) books in the world. How did it come to Liverpool? Audubon came to the city seeking sponsorship support from the Earl of Derby, and stayed with the Rathbones at Rathbone Hall. In the volume on display, a page is turned each day revealing a new illustration.

The escalator takes you only as far as the first floor, from there, stairs spiral upwards towards the atrium with dizzying views both up and down – for the less fit there are of course plenty of lifts. There are all the necessary attributes of a good lending library; factual books on every subject under the sun, all genres of fiction to relax with, plus computers, a gaming room, a new children’s library, a local and family history research department – the list goes on. For the visitor’s convenience, there are toilets on every floor. There is also the welcome bonus of a coffee shop on the ground floor, with an outdoor terrace should we ever get decent weather, and a fourth floor roof terrace with views across St John’s Gardens from where you can spot some of the city’s landmarks.

I went back two days after my first visit and I still haven’t seen everything, so next time you’re in Liverpool, when you visit the Walker Art Gallery and the World Museum, don’t forget to visit the Central Library also – you won’t regret it.

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