To celebrate 400 years of Bristol libraries, and to coincide with national libraries day, Bristol Central Library hosted a ‘behind the scenes’ tour at their beautiful building on College Green.

Rusty Squid’s animatronic ‘Book Hive’ (discussed in previous post, ABC: Art, Books and Curious Cats) was still fluttering, shimmering and swarming in the entrance foyer, whilst in the main lending library, artist Joff Winterhart and Writer Sara-Jane Arbury were helping visitors express their love of libraries in words and pictures.  Haikus and doodles were the order of the day, all stuck to a communal display.  And yes, I did join in.  Both of these artworks are designed to bring the public together, aiding interaction with the massive array of resources on offer at Bristol Library.

Kathryn McDermott led the tour, and her passion for the building was infectious.  It was built in 1906 by Charles Holden (who also designed many London Underground stations) and is a beautiful example of early 1900s simplicity, panache and style – all in one space.  One of Holden’s key conceits was the movement from light to dark, open to enclosed; from the bright city street the viewer enters his dark, enveloping green glass mosaic hallway.  It is a small room with low ceilings, twinkling walls and dim lighting.  This enfolding space suddenly opens out into a large, sunlit and open staircase, further leading to a bright white cloistered corridor on the second floor.  From here, there were many rooms, filled with Victorian mahogany bookshelves, dark, cosy and incredibly inviting – which finally opened out onto the main reading library, a large vaulted space, spanning several floors.

Here, there is an interesting reappearance of themes; at the Arnolfini’s ‘Art and Design’ talk last Monday (see previous: THE BRIEF IS ALWAYS WRONG), Jeremy Hutchison (London based Artist) was driven by the binaries of ‘relation’ and ‘separation’. For Charles Holden it was the repeating motif of ‘light’ to ‘dark.’  For me, when exploring this magnificent building, I was struck by the juxtaposition of ‘repetition’; row after row, shelf after shelf, room after room of books and manuscripts – contrasted with an amazing ‘difference’ and ‘diversity’; knowing that each volume was a inimitable object, with its own unique knowledge to impart.  This heady combination of replication and variance made for a captivating experience.

The library holds many precious treasures aside from its books; the building itself as a start, a massive Grinling Gibbons carving in one of the reference rooms, a chair reportedly used by Judge Jeffries in the bloody assizes of the seventeenth century – as well as some truly fascinating manuscripts and newspapers.  I was lucky enough to leaf through a copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, dated 1493.  At this point, McDermott was at pains to stress the beauty of the public library as an institution.  Any of the material is available to any citizen – it belongs to the people, is stored for the people and should be well utilised.

If even a small part of McDermott’s love for her library was imparted yesterday, then Bristol’s National Libraries day can be considered a success.  The Central Library is a beautiful and fascinating building, housing an innumerable collection of knowledge, ready for use.  If you have the time, do visit.

Currently, Bristol city Councillors are voting on a proposal to cut the library budget by £1.1 million (20%) which would take effect in 2016.  As well as this, Bristol libraries are facing a 10-15% staffing cut NOW.

If you disagree with money and staffing being removed from such a valuable public amenity, please sign this petition:

9 thoughts on “This is all owned by you – Exploring Bristol Library

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