While two libraries face closure Central Library has a brighter future after a £3m makeover made possible by Lottery funding. Jacqui Morley reports
Let there be light. It’s an irony, in such straitened times for Blackpool Council, with two other libraries facing closure, that those words are set in stone above the door of Central Library.
One of very few remaining Carnegie buildings, it is now in the midst of a makeover ahead of reopening in September, to celebrate its 100th anniversary.
It was built in 1911, architect Bisset Adams working to benefactor Andrew Carnegie’s belief that libraries should be places of cultural enlightenment.
It’s the beauty of this building, its rarity, its position at the heart of the resort, and its continued appeal to residents and visitors alike, which allows for that future to be set, almost literally, in stone, unlike that of two branch libraries, at Grange Park and Mereside, which face closure because of council cutbacks.
Central Library, the one that got away, is turning over a new leaf. It is able to do so because the bulk of the funding for a whole new chapter to open on Central’s life and times came from the Big Lottery Communities Libraries Fund (£2m), with a further £1m from Blackpool Council.
As Central Library manager Anna Stevens concedes: “We’re lucky, very lucky indeed, we secured the funding when we did. I don’t think it would have happened in today’s economic climate, but this will equip the library for a bright new future.”
Retired librarians Judith Vickers and Mary Murray join us for the inside story on the ambitious restoration project. Both own up to worrying about the future of libraries.
The restoration means more than simply preserving a fine building for future generations to appreciate.
It’s about ensuring the facilities within are enjoyed by all.
It builds on Carnegie’s vision – saddened as he would have been by the loss of smaller branches elsewhere.
Central Library represents a small victory for common sense, as a new age of austerity eats away at facilities long taken for granted. It will enable more to access improved facilities, group areas, meeting places, music, a café and, since this is Blackpool, light displays. It will offer a permanent home to the late Cyril Critchlow’s collection. And all via a smart new entrance, opening on airy cloister-like confines within.
“We’re following Carnegie’s ethos in that respect too – it will be much lighter,” adds Anna. “From the moment people enter, they will see what’s available. It’s going to be fantastic, and offer far more for people of all ages. Part of the bid was to help curb social isolation.”
Designers are making more of the space, even providing airy hanging glass walkways suspended above the atrium.
The designs includes an extension to accommodate community use areas for groups, workshops, and tweak the technology. It will become truly inclusive.
The new-build honours Carnegie’s original concept, incorporating elements planned, but never completed, when the library was first built.
What’s taking shape behind closed doors opens up almost forgotten rooms. It’s unearthed wonderful porthole windows, feature fireplaces, false doors, parquet floors, dumb waiters, even lofty beams, long hidden behind flat false ceilings.
Crumbling wooden steps lead to where librarians of a gentler age, Mary and Judith, sunbathed on the roof. And, oh, the stories they will tell of this library once it reopens.
Mary started work here at 16, and quit when she wed in 1953, for it was considered unseemly for lady librarians to marry, even if they had to hand out smutty books from “under the counter”. She also stitched up the books when they fell apart at the seams. Heaven knows what her bosses would have made of the naked librarians’ calendar for which staff posed some years ago as a tongue-in-cheek fundraiser – although it never saw the light of day after killjoys intervened.
The system relented to allow Mary back part-time in 1958. She worked at Revoe library too, but Central threw up most memorable characters, such as the old lady who used to sneak gin in her milk, and “dry her knickers on the radiator”.
Judith, who worked here for 30 years from 1964, concludes: “Central’s going to be fantastic. But with so much happening, computers and workshops and suchlike, let’s not forget the books, eh!