Exploring the Library

Last Friday, a friend and I went on the Heritage Week tour of Leeds Central Library. A tour of a library might seem like a strange idea. It’s all just shelves full of books and people using the internet for free right? Of course there was far more to it than that.

The Central Library is a big building that houses art, music and local history areas as well as events spaces. The staff areas, which house books too valuable or too fragile to be put on public display, are a network of secret passages worthy of a gothic horror novel. Parts of it are quite beautiful, especially the Local History Library pictured below.

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It’s a place that I have quite a personal connection to as I did three weeks’ work experience there when I was at school. Everyone had to do work experience and I really had no idea what I wanted to do (well, I did but travelling in time and space wasn’t on the options sheet). I did love books though and so a library seemed like a fairly natural place to go. It was a strange three weeks. As a socially awkward teenager I wasn’t sure how to handle working with the public or how to be alongside people much older and far less talkative than me. But I loved the building and all its secrets. So many archways and doorways leading to cluttered rooms and narrow passageways. The feeling that its internal architecture was working to its own rules and might happily set you wondering around in circles for years.

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Years later, when I was studying for a counselling diploma, I used the library’s study room to prepare for essays and work my way through text books. It’s an old fashioned room with a distinctly bookish smell that somehow focuses the mind.

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And the place has been a refuge too, in troubled times. When I’ve been stuck in horrible jobs doing work I’ve hated, the library has been a sanctuary, a space separate from all of that. Somewhere devoted to imagination and thought, not money. Somewhere it is possible to read or see something without having to have the ego massage of owning it.

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It’s no secret that many libraries are struggling. In part this is due to the availability of so much information digitally, in part the consequence of woeful underfunding. When I tweeted some photos from the tour, one person replied that no doubt one day it will become an events venue and nothing more. I do hope this isn’t the case. Libraries big or small are special and distinct places. When so much of the space where we spend our time can seem homogenized into call centres and shopping malls, it would be a shame to lose them.

The architecture of Leeds Central Library still holds the same appeal for me that it  did when I was a teenager. In some ways it reminds me of the paradoxical, mysterious art of MC Escher in which space folds back on it itself to create new and impossible landscapes. The piece below, created using PowerPoint and Paint, is my attempt to convey this idea.

Inside the Impossible Tower

However much they modernise, libraries are unlikely ever to become cool. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t well worth exploring.

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