Brave New World or Paradise Lost? – Our town’s new library

Our town has a new library. It’s been open since early August, but the UK’s National Libraries Week (5 -10 October) seems like a good time to check it out. For years – no, decades – we’ve wished to see the old library replaced. Hopefully it will prove to be worth the wait.

* * *

The old library was a converted stone-built domestic property – The Hollies – dating from the first half of the 19th century. Located within the Belper Town section of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, it had loads of character. But despite the best efforts of the staff it was a woefully inadequate public library, a hotchpotch of small, knocked-together rooms spread across two floors. “Compact” would be one way to describe it, but I prefer “cramped, uncomfortable and incapable of measuring up to 21st century expectations.”

The old library (photo taken 2005)

Ideally, Belper’s new library would have been purpose-built, but space for new-build projects is at a premium in the World Heritage Site area. And anyway, libraries aren’t seen as a priority these days, in a society which seems to believe that the Internet and mobile phones are the answer to everything. In the circumstances, I suppose we should be grateful that the project went ahead at all, albeit in another converted building.

The site of the new development is the former Thorntons factory, where yummy chocolates and other confectionery goodies once rolled off the production lines in vast quantities. Thorntons abandoned Belper many years ago, and a new use was required for their land and buildings.

The new library (ignore the frontage stretching into the far distance on the right!)

Cometh the hour, cometh the council. Parts of the factory were flattened, to be replaced by a relocated care home and a health centre. However the oldest factory building was retained, to be converted into the town’s new library.

* * *

As we approach the new library we take stock of its appearance and potential. Externally the architect has done a good job, broadly sympathetic to the building’s industrial past and in keeping with the spirit of the World Heritage Site. So far, so good. But what about inside?

A masked member of staff greets us as we enter, asking for our names and contact details as part of the government’s Covid-19 Test and Trace strategy. However there seems to be little chance of catching anything here. The place is almost deserted, just a couple more staff and one other member of the public who scuttles out soon after we arrive.

The timing of the new library’s opening is disastrous, and you’ve got to feel sorry for the management and local staff. This project has been in the pipeline for years, and nobody could have predicted it would come to fruition when the country is in the throes of a pandemic.

Computers wrapped in bin bags, and no chairs…not much chance of public internet access here today! Sexy curved shelving – but the “island” units interfere with sightlines.

Elsewhere in Derbyshire the county’s library service is working hard to extend and promote its digital offer – eBooks, online storytimes and the like. But here at Belper the team face a different challenge, to entice users to try out an unfamiliar library building which is currently unable to live up to its potential due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

It’s clearly not “business as usual” today. Covid-19 is still deterring many people from venturing into public spaces like this, the computers are wrapped up in what looks like bin-bags, and seating is limited. More disturbingly, all books returned to the library after being borrowed are set aside and quarantined for three days before they are put back on the open shelves.

Exposed rafters and beams, and bare brickwork, celebrate the building’s industrial past

So, through no fault of the staff our first visit here is not the relaxed, welcoming experience we’d hoped it would be. We have the place to ourselves as we start to explore the Brave New World of Belper Library

Although the positioning of the original windows tells us this was once a two-storey building, the first floor has been stripped out entirely. The roof soars high above us, revealing exposed rafters and beams. Combined with the bare brickwork, the underbelly of the roof pays due homage to the building’s industrial past.

White “island” shelving units, but wooden wall-mounted units. Why?

But, and it’s a big but, the place seems a bit small. In order to cram more books into the available space they’ve opted for head-high “island” shelving, which interferes with sightlines and counteracts the airy sense of space which should result from the soaring roofline. And where are the public meeting rooms, a vital resource for the modern public library, welcoming shared spaces where community groups can get together to explore culture, literature and learning?

But it’s the children’s section of the library that disappoints me the most. It’s not big enough, feels austere and clinical, and lacks both colour and character.

In my view the most important part of any public library is the children’s area. More than ever in this digital age we have a duty to encourage youngsters to explore and enjoy the written word, to develop their language skills, and to experience the power of story. I worry that the dazzling white shelves and uninspired furnishings will struggle to achieve this.

The children’s area: austere, clinical, lacking colour and character

Perhaps I’m being too harsh? The library is clearly an enormous improvement on what the town has had to put up with for the previous 80 years, and we’ve not seen it at its best. In the post-Covid environment (whenever that is!) I’m sure the staff will work hard to make it fly, and I wish them well in their endeavours.

But this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something brilliant for culture and learning in Belper, to create a new, vibrant community venue, and it seems to have slightly missed the mark. I leave the library feeling a trifle underwhelmed, debating whether, when I write this post, I should somehow weave “Paradise Lost” into the title of the piece.

Sadly, I won’t be spending as much of my retirement in the library as I’d once imagined.

18 comments

  1. magarisa · 17 Days Ago

    It does look a bit cramped even when nobody is there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 17 Days Ago

      Yes, if it had the number of users that I’m sure they were hoping to attract it would be a bit of a nightmare.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. sinharishika · 17 Days Ago

    Oh yes it looks very modern and mechanical-definitely Paradise Lost.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yeah, Another Blogger · 17 Days Ago

    No public meeting room? That’s a major oversight. You’ll probably develop a liking for the library, though, despite its shortcomings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 16 Days Ago

      Yes, I’m sure I’ll get accustomed to it and use it from time to time, but I’m still saddened by the missed opportunities in this project.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. tanjabrittonwriter · 17 Days Ago

    I like the exterior of the building and how much light enters inside through the windows. The library must have been planned before the current situation, and nobody thought of social distancing then. I’m sure with time the staff will figure out if and how things might be improved.

    I’m grateful our library branches have reopened after being closed for 2 or 3 months altogether, even if items are quarantined for 72 hours in between users (the same happens here), and the number of visitors is limited at any given time. Long live public libraries!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Platypus Man · 16 Days Ago

      Yes, externally the architect has done a good job. Internally, however, there are some design errors – unrelated to any need for social distancing – that the libraries management should not have agreed to. In particular, I would never have signed off on the “look and feel” of the children’s area, which I think is profoundly disappointing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · 15 Days Ago

        If I may be permitted to add a slightly different perspective–our little village library was in a dark and dinky old room in an old building, and as a child, I had only eyes for the books. Maybe today’s children are different, but I’m sure for some that’s still the case.
        And again, with time, the library staff might proceed with some modifications. 📚📚📚

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · 15 Days Ago

        I guess there are still some youngsters who are consumed by books from an early stage, but I think the world’s now more complicated than when we were growing up. As my career progressed we found we increasingly had to remind ourselves that we were competing for children’s leisure time with other, (superficially?) more attractive offers: video games, social media and the internet. Well designed and attractive buildings are definitely part of the answer, but so are brilliant staff who can inspire the love of books and reading. In your previous comment you said “long love public libraries,” to which I would cheekily add “long live brilliant public librarians!”

        Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · 13 Days Ago

        I absolutely agree. Librarians, alongside with books, are what make libraries such magical place.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. krikitarts · 16 Days Ago

    This has been a very melancholy post about a potentially-tremendous improvement in this public facility, and the essential areas in which it’s fallen short. We patronize our library here regularly, and I completely agree that the children’s area is the most important in any library. There seems to be no comfortable place to sit (I don’t see a single seat with a back rest), and not only is there no young-attention-drawing art in sight, but not even a bulletin board to put up temporary enticements. Perhaps, in time, they could add at least a partial second story with a more cozy loft that would provide a much-needed, snug and welcoming area for the littles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 16 Days Ago

      Thank you – it’s encouraging that you don’t think I’m being unreasonable in my criticisms. I hope that once the Covid crisis is over there may be some improvements, but I don’t know if the council will have the money to do much…the media is full of doom and gloom about the long-term financial impact of the pandemic restrictions. What a mess!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. ThoughtsBecomeWords · 15 Days Ago

    Rather clinical and cramped for sure, but since most of the 33 libraries in my city are new-builds I have perhaps become immune to ‘modern’ lines and generic decor. While our libraries are as strong as ever, city planners and architects create what they want without consulting library staff or the general public. Perhaps ‘mellowing with time’ is an option…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 15 Days Ago

      When I was dealing with architects I found they needed “guidance” on who uses libraries and how those users interact with library spaces and services. I’d never dream of telling an architect about the nuts and bolts of building construction, light levels, insulation etc, but sometimes had to remind them that I too had relevant expertise. A full and frank exchange of professional opinions would then ensue!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. ThoughtsBecomeWords · 14 Days Ago

    Excellent!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. wholelottarosie · 10 Days Ago

    Our library is located in a factory built in 1893, which is now an industrial monument. It was once important for the shoe and shaft production in my city. It was built in red brick, looks wonderful and is used today as a cultural and meeting center

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 9 Days Ago

      A “cultural and meeting centre [including a library]” is what our town needed, but unfortunately didn’t get. Yours sounds perfect, and I’m definitely jealous 🙂.

      Liked by 1 person

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