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A library not doing things by the book

What is the top tourist attraction in Liverpool? Anfield Stadium? The Cavern Club? Mendips, John Lennon’s childhood home? None of the above. According to Tripadvisor, it’s the newly-refurbished
Central Library, located in the centre of the city whose population is half a million. Charlie Kortens went to find out more

Liverpool Central Library stands a stone’s throw from Lime Street Station, its location since 1860. Based in a building that, with its classical columns and stone walls you would associate more with Athens or Rome than Merseyside, the library contains countless books and archives, occupying 35km of shelving. It is home to priceless historical documents, including a 13th century charter granted by King John to the city of Liverpool, population then just 500.

Despite the historic nature of the site and its contents, by the turn of the millennium the library was becoming run down. The original building had been damaged by German raids during the Second World War, unsatisfactory 1950s repairs marred the century – old original architecture, there was crumbling stonework, leaks and parts of the building weren’t even accessible.

“Everything was very drab and uninviting,” says David Stoker, service manager, at the library. “From the outside you wouldn’t have even known the library was here, we were overshadowed by the art gallery to one side and the museum to the other. We have some superb archives and documents but we couldn’t store them in the required conditions. What connections we had between different parts of the building 
were terrible.”

For the biggest library in a city that was European Capital of Culture as recently as 2008 this was clearly unacceptable. Liverpool City Council took the decision to completely revamp the institution and, in conjunction with architects Austin-Smith:Lord (ASL) and facilities provider Cofely, has completely overhauled and refurbished the site, creating one of the most impressive libraries in England.

Old is seamlessly blended with new. During the restoration, which lasted from autumn 2010 through to the summer of 2013, many of the original 19th century features were restored, from clocks in the spectacular reading rooms, to the paint on the sweeping staircases, and, most impressively, the original electric lights. The first of their kind in any public building in the city.

But on the other hand the 21st century has been ruthlessly embraced. iPads are provided for visitors, free wi-fi is available and a sound-proof room is set apart for people to come to play the library’s X-box.

But of course, this being a library, it can’t all be dominated by touch screens and handsets. There are dedicated reading rooms, including the Picton Room, which Griffin describes as her “favourite room in the entire library.” Which, with it’s sprawling shelves and leather bound books could have been lifted straight from Hogwarts. When FMJ visits it is a haven of silent reading, away from the hustle and bustle of the main library. Not that the main library is anything other than mightily impressive.

Cofely’s Sue Griffin, account manager says that when everything was still in the planning stages the architects promised to create a building with a wow factor. “I defy anyone who visits to say they haven’t succeeded. I’m proud to work in this building. The entire team is proud to work in this building. They have all brought their families to show it off which I think must be unusual.”

Cofely provides a total facilities management solution, and will do so for more than the next two decades under a 25-year private finance initiative (PFI) to refurbish the site and then operate it. Though such a long-term deal is unusual, Stoker believes that it is reassuring, because both sides want to avoid quick fixes and are looking into the long-term future. “Yesterday, for example, we looked at energy savings and we can say, yes, that’s good, it will benefit us both 10 years down the line.”

Griffin nods, “we’re going to be here for 25 years, so we don’t do anything lightly. Although we’ve no idea what the world will be like then, we measure everything up to try and see how it will play out.”

About Sarah OBeirne


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