©quisnovus (all other photos Alex Giles)
I’m no expert on the threatened demise of the public library in this time of austerity, but I experienced more than a ray of hope on my visit last week to the recently opened Canada Water Library. Its iconic inverted pyramid design by Piers Gough of CZWG is not as you might initially suspect an exercise in style over substance, but actually very practical given the limited space of its location; sandwiched between the tube station and the shopping centre. It enabled a sizeable reading room on the first floor with meeting rooms, balconies and beautiful views over the “docks” to be built on a relatively small ground floor “footprint”. It also allowed for a large public square or “events plaza” there too; something that had been desired by locals and planners alike to create an outside focal point in the ongoing regeneration of the area; according to our guide Richard Bareham (Library Manager).
Richard’s enthusiasm and pride for the place was unmistakeable, hardly surprising given the place boasts a charming ground floor cafe, fully functioning professional theatre/cultural space, IT suites, and state of the art environmental features such as heat pumps and a “green” moss roof. Its open plan design may cause some noise issues, especially when Baby Rhyme Time is on – as it was during our visit – and the Scandanavian staircase does take up rather a lot of room, but its comfort and facilities – if not luxurious (more IKEA than Conran) – are nicely thought out, modern and inviting. So inviting that they hope next year to be welcoming their 2 millionth visitor.
But this is not just about a building, shiny and new as it may be – but what goes on inside it… For many it’s a place to come to study or do their homework, with plenty of pcs and free wifi for your own devices, as well as the standard collection of newspapers and magazines (available through online subscriptions) and access to the usual public library databases eg ancestry, various “dictionary” and government sites. The large colourful children’s area seemed pretty raucous, and the multi-purpose rooms for hire had a long list of bookings for yoga, business meetings, Little Bunnies, Manga Club, creative writing groups, a daily benefits drop-in surgery etc etc.
I saw no stuffy old library SILENCE signs, but large informative plasma screens and modern self-check out machines, plenty of computer games and some DVDs – I’m glad the non-downloaders amongst us are still being catered for! There are even some books – yes, about 50,000 of them – a brand new collection, bought with their readership in mind; so mainly popular genres of fiction, some history/reference works, biography and comic books. They are organised on low-level shelving, to give a sense of space and light, so the whole atmosphere of the place is one of relaxed activity, rather than the old fashioned oppressive Victorian sternness of public libraries I remember as a child.
Whether such libraries will continue to be built with the tightening of local authority budgets remains to be seen, but Southwark Council at the moment seems to think they are worth investing in with their recently opened Peckham Library winning architectural awards, and a new one in Camberwell planned to replace a building no longer fit for purpose. Clapham, my neighbourhood, similarly closed an old “traditional” public library and just opened a new eye-catching building in the shape of a row of books (sort of) comprising apartments, leisure/health centre – and library.
The beauty of these artful contemporary additions to our High Street is not just that they are designed specifically for today’s extensive information needs, but moreover are sustainable as a local resource/centre catering for any number of ongoing public demands.
At Canada Water, Richard is clearly customer focused, explaining that in many ways he feels more like an events manager than a librarian; concerned with revenue streams, and constantly thinking of new ways to engage the local poplulation; an uneasy mix these days of council tenants on one side and swanky new city pad dwellers on the other. The idea is that this “cultural exchange” will offer something for everyone; be it a talk or performance in the theatre space, a mother and toddler group or a local history project. A meeting place for people to interact and connect with each other, “socialise” even…
But even if you may not notice the large glass LIBRARY signage at its entrance, the first thing that greets you as you walk in are books; this “rebranding” of a public library as a multi-use community hub still manages cleverly to have literature and knowledge at its heart – it is still a library – whether you see that as “a place of dreaming and ideas”, or just somewhere warm to read the paper…