When our kid was young, I’d occasionally take him for a mooch around town on a Saturday. We’d go to the Macdonald’s on Oxford Street and then up to the Central Library. As you can see, it’s a pretty cool building. But that’s nothing compared to what it’s like inside. It’s a four storey building, excluding the basement. The ground floor’s sectioned off vertically, with a sadly diminished and kind of tatty fiction library circling round the outer core - literary Chernobyl, after the accident.
The first floor’s where the action is: the social science library, books for lending plastered to the encircling walls as though by the action of a centrifuge, long reading tables arrowing down to the workstation in the middle. Do the circuit round the books and you’ve walked about a quarter of a mile. Up above there’s this great, glorious vault, right to the top of the building, light streaming in through the transparent panel at the top.
And it’s a massive echo chamber: an amplified library, every whisper and creep audible everywhere. It is, paradoxically, quite restful. You know you’re supposed to be quiet because you hear people being quiet all the time.
Anyway, me and our kid would go up to the first floor, snag the biggest book we could find lying around – lots of hardback folios available, needless to say - lay it open at the first page and heave the back of the book right over: BOOM. And then we’d sneak out.
These days I use it for the purpose it was intended for. So do lots of other people, many of them students or the kind of faintly desiccated oldish men who hunch over microfiche, giving off an aroma of amateur local historian. But the great thing is that back in 1937, the city erected a magnificent structure solely in order to make a casual borrower like myself think that they were doing something worthwhile. You may be taking out a history of Japanese biological warfare, as I found myself doing just the other week, but never mind: you’re part of civilization.
Well, not from next year. The place is shutting down for renovations. Asbestos, the librarian told me; that and the need to refurbish the lift for disabled use. So how long will it be shut for, I asked her. Between three and four years, she said. English Heritage are also involved somewhere down the line, presumably vigilant in case anyone sticks up a half timbered frontage or pebbledashes the double doors at the entrance.
Meanwhile, some of the collection is going to be shoved into a high rise off Deansgate. Not much of it, though: the rest will be available on order. What if you don’t know what you want until you see it? Tough.
It’s bad timing, given the likelihood that council budgets are going to be badly squeezed over the next few years. It’s also a bit suspicious. Whatever work needs doing has needed doing for a long time, the government appears to have a weird passive-aggressive bureaucratic hostility to the very idea of libraries, and there are elements in the council who tend to be hostile to any use being made of the city centre for purposes other than shopping. And besides, wouldn’t such a lovely building be better converted into the kind of stylish residential apartments likely to be appealing to the kind of high flyers that Alaistair Darling still refuses to sufficiently tax?
There’s always cause for concern when an iconic building like the central library vanishes into the maw of the local redevelopment complex; that’s true even more in times like these. It would be very easy over the space of three or four years for the idea of the place to just slip away.
I’ll be able to get down there a few more times before the place shuts. Maybe I should do that thing with the book again. I’ve a feeling it may be my last chance.