Thursday, June 9, 2022

Day 2 – The Barbican Library

The Barbican Library is a public lending library located in the Barbican Centre in the City of London (see website). The Barbican Centre itself is a vast performing arts complex with theatres, a movie theatre, restaurants, shops, and a library on the second floor. The Barbican Library is the largest public library within the actual City of London (which is just a square mile) and is affiliated with two other libraries. The library serves a residential community of less than 8,000 as well as many who commute into the financial district from the London suburbs and local students.  It was the second destination for the British Studies group.
The library is cheerful and welcoming
Hidden away in a labyrinthine concrete building that reminded me strongly (and not in a good way) of Boston City Hall’s Brutalist style, the Barbican Library is a large two-story space that is not fully enclosed. This adds a warmth to the general atmosphere of the library but also a significant amount of noise from activity going on in the complex. Our visit was hosted by Jonathan Gibbs, the IT and Operations Librarian, substituting for his colleague Sarah Surname, who was delayed on the Tube. He was an entertaining guide, showing us the physical layout of the library and describing the goals of the library, which has a strong community engagement mission. The interior is attractive with an open layout on its main floor with an emphasis on popular fiction. It is organized by genre in several fixtures near the circulation desk: fiction, fantasy/science fiction, mysteries/suspense, a new “quick picks” shelf, as well as traditional shelves for fiction and nonfiction by subject area. The library is also celebrating its 40th anniversary and one interesting wall display contained books published that year such as The Color Purple and The Tao of Pooh.
A children's display for the Jubilee
“I don’t suppose any of you have heard of Dick Whittington?” Jonathan asked. Startled, I said, “Turn around, Whittington, Thrice lord mayor of London!” amazing even myself, and he said, “Exactly! Well, he left money for a library in his will, creating a tradition for the City of London.” Jonathan also told us he had not expected to become a librarian and no one would have guessed it from his childhood, when he was careless with books and was lucky the Book Recovery Officer didn’t come after him. It is fortunate such a job did not exist in Newton, Massachusetts during my formative years or I might not be with you today!
I saw many classic mysteries I would
have liked to curl up with!
Jonathan told us one of the most unusual parts of the Barbican’s collection are
1000 mystery titles from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, which were donated by a Manchester university. I could imagine spending a lot of time with these! Another special collection is music – performing arts has the entire lower level of the library due to being housed in the Barbican and is very popular. Jonathan told us the library has an unparalleled collection of musical scores and also specializes in books on sculpture but I was also struck by a whole shelf devoted to hymn books. As I perused the section, I was pleased to see my grandfather’s book on Handel!
Third row, about ten from the left
One of my classmates asked how the library is addressing diversity in its collection. Although the library staff told us they read reviews and add material that seems appropriate, diversity does not appear to be a hot-button topic as it is in the United States, nor I did not see one person of color in the library during our visit, apart from those in our group. Among my classmates, there seemed to be a lot more interest (or experience, perhaps) in public libraries as both our hosts were bombarded with questions (which they took in good part). I asked Sarah about the children’s budget which is L7,000 per year – that seemed low to me so I emailed the library where I work one day a month to inquire about their budget. Admittedly, they serve a whole town, not a branch but back in Greater Boston their Children’s materials budget is $82,000 and Teen material’s budget is $42,000. 
Exterior of St. Giles
I asked Sarah about the popularity of Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome. She said that Blyton is still popular and that the offensive bits have mostly been removed in new editions. She was less enthusiastic about Ransome and basically said she encourages children to read books that are fun. I felt bad for the Swallows and Amazons but must admit that when I tried to read the first book to my nephew it seemed dull in comparison to Harry Potter. Somewhat to the bemusement of our hosts, we all insisted on getting library cards. “But will you finish a book in three weeks?” Sarah asked, before yielding to our animated request. I suppose we were a little like a hurricane passing through the library!
Interior of St. Giles (flower
arranging going on at top left)
My cohorts left on various expeditions but I had lunch in the ground floor cafeteria before visiting St. Giles Cripplegate Church, which is the parish church adjacent to the Barbican and one of the few medieval churches left in London. The earliest church on this site was Saxon but a stone church was built in the 11th century. The name comes from the Saxon word 'cruplegate', meaning a tunnel or covered walkway – a tunnel originally went from the church to the Barbican watchtower. I wanted to stop by because Jonathan had told us John Milton was buried there and I figured my aunt Helene, who was a Milton scholar, had either been there herself and/or would have wanted me to pay my respects to her hero. It was also the parish church of Thomas More’s parents and of Martin Frobisher who I thought of as an explorer but the text in the church describes him as also being a savior of the Armada!
Milton seems a bit melancholy
Miles walked: 5.4
Churches: 1
Books acquired: 3 (one from the Barbican Library’s sale shelf, one from the Pound Shop in Clapham where I did some errands, and one from the Marylebone Library’s sale shelf.  I had gone to visit Nicky Smith but she was off gallivanting as a first aid training.

Photo credit: the first photo above is from the Barbican website


Jeanne said...

My children, born in 1993 and 1996, loved Swallows and Amazons. We all loved it, and went on the tour at Coniston Waters a few years ago.

Lory said...

I am sure I would also not be able to resist getting a library card for three weeks! What a wonderful place, thanks for the virtual visit.

LyzzyBee said...

I still love Swallows and Amazons! What a lovely trip this was, but then I'm a fan of brutalism. Some of us are concerned about representation in libraries so that's a bit shocking that wasn't a topic. We have a new bookshop coming locally and when I filled in their survey I said they should really stock books in community languages - I wonder if they will! We do have a lovely multicultural children's bookshop already here.

JaneGS said...

What a wonderful day! I would get lost in the section on the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. I have no idea what my town's library spends on children's books per year, but 7000 pounds does seem awfully low.

I liked the statue of Milton--seems like an excellent side trip to pay your respects.