Let there be light

Refurbishments at Blackpool central library.' The new entrance to the library.
Refurbishments at Blackpool central library.' The new entrance to the library.
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Andrew Carnegie was the Bill Gates of his times.

The self-made steel tycoon and philanthropist had a code for living. Spend the first third of your life learning as much as you can, the next third earning as much as you can, and the final third giving away as much as you can to worthy causes.

This enlightenment led to Blackpool’s New Central Library opening 100 years ago.

The Edwardian baroque building was hailed the “most treasured municipal pile” in the borough.

A portrait in stained glass of Blackpool’s benefactor Carnegie endures to this day in honour of his maxim Let There Be Light. He died from bronchial pneumonia eight years after it was put in place.

His legacy is the new-look Central Library which reopens officially today, with events to celebrate its centenary.

Just as the original was an architectural masterpiece designed for the masses, the redesign redefines blue sky thinking on the part of artists and architects – thanks to the space and light created by opening hatches to the heavens and exposing previously unseen tiling, hidden offices, ornate lights and other features.

“It just blew me away,” admits Anne Ellis, head of the libraries service, her very appointment a far cry from the days when lady librarians had to remain unmarried, and a “ladies room” set aside was so small because it contained “only papers of interest to women.”

Today there is a reading room for all, a retreat from the hustle and bustle of a place where the maxim is no longer “quiet, please”.

A bank of computers is adjacent to the new community cafe, with an accessible entrance carefully crafted to sit in line with the rest of the building, under the watchful eye of conservation architects Richard Griffiths.

Local hotel worker Gary Phillips, 30, is delighted with the makeover.

“Not everyone has access to the internet, and I come here most days to use the computers – but I also get books out too,” he admits.

“I love what they’ve done here. It’s a real pleasure to visit. And the cafe’s a great idea.”

Alicia Galvin fronts the cafe and says it’s already proving popular with office workers, shoppers and others, with prices and products pitched to tempt people to linger longer.

“People are delighted with it,” she says. “I just think it’s a lovely location.”

If every picture tells a story, it’s the stained glass windows which reflect Carnegie’s ideals. On a dull day they lift the spirits.

Visit on a sunny day and they transform the building, sending shards of splintered colour dancing on walls, across computers, among the books, into the community cafe and up above, to the mezzanine level and local history unit beyond. It’s one of the largest stained glass projects in the country, and deploys every stained glass technique, old and new.

It’s full of seaside references – even the colour coding keeps the seaside candy theme.

Anne’s personal favourite changes with the weather – today it’s the Stories window with words and keyboards commanding the attention, other days it’s the Butterfly window, with the key word Freedom.

“Kids gravitate to the train window – Illumination – depicting the illuminated Western Train.

Pedants query why one window bears the word Reflect in reverse – the answer’s evident.

Anne says the “most contentious window” has been the design featuring a brain, often mistaken for intestines by those whose cerebral cortex fails to make the link between brain and key word “curiosity”.

The impressive entrance has been opened up, all the features retained, but finally accessible to all, and visible throughout – nothing to obscure the eye, or block the path, or interfere with the seamless flow.

As for the books? The cases are on eye-level for most.

June McKinnon, of South Shore, a regular user who defected to Palatine Library while Central closed for the heritage lottery-funded makeover, says it’s “wonderful – well worth the wait.”

At the new self-issue scanners, where a queue is forming to check books in and out, an 84-year-old lady assures me “you’ll get the hang of it by the third time.”

As for the timing? It couldn’t be better.

If you miss out on meeting crime writer Cath Stainclfife this afternoon, or catching a children’s theatre in residence, or haven’t been invited to the VIP event this evening, the annual Wordpool week starts on November 5, and is previewed on Saturday, at 2pm.

There’s even a tea dance at Central Library on November 10.

Quiet please?