Etikettarkiv: england

When in Blackpool, don’t miss the public library

I was in Blackpool late September 2022 for a concert and I didn’t have a clue about the place. A Mancunian friend said it was one of those seaside resorts that had its heyday in the postwar decade (when it received 17 million visitors a year) but that it now was the perfect embodiment of Everyday Is Like Sunday’s line ”this is the coastal town that they forgot to close down”.

A glance on the Blackpool Wikipedia article says the town grew into a popular destination for the working class in the mid-19th century when Lancashire cotton mill owners took turns to shut down their factories for maintenance one week per year which provided a steady stream of visitors to Blackpool. Famous for its promenade, piers and perhaps especially its electrical lights – it was the first municipality in the world (1879) to have electric street lighting and its electrical tramway (1885) is also one of the world’s first. The (according to British friends apparently very famous) Blackpool Tower, inspired by the Parisian Eiffel Tower, was opened in 1894 and was at the time the tallest man made structure in the British empire.

The increased popularity of package holidays abroad meant Blackpool lost its traditional tourist crowd and as I understand it’s now mainly day tourists who go there, and not nearly as many as before. However, tourism remains a pillar in the town’s economy. A fun fact is that Blackpool shares its etymology with Dublin on the other side of the Irish sea: Dublin is derived from Irish Duibhlinn which means ”black pool” (though the common name for the city in modern Irish is Baile Átha Cliath, ”town of the hurdled ford”).

Knowing a bit about Blackpool’s history, it’s not surprising that it’s also home to a Carnegie library which serves as the main public library of the town. The Carnegie libraries were built between 1883 and 1929 with money donated from the Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and of the 2509 libraries, 660 are located in the United Kingdom and Ireland. What makes the Blackpool Central Library unique among Carnegie libraries is that it has a portrait of the philanthropist. As you ascend the stairs and reach the upper floor (which hosts local history collections and the Brunswick room) the donor’s gaze meet you from a stained glass window. This part of the library was closed of for renovation when I visited but the lovely librarian Jools showed me the closed section and also told me the story about the rare Carnegie portrait.

The public libraries of Blackpool have seven other branches that together with the Central Library serves the town’s population (~141,000 people). What really struck me with the Central Library was that it was so colourful. Many Carnegie libraries (and other libraries from the same era) I’ve visited look very similar, with white walls and an old fashioned sense of a library space trying to fit in with modern services. It’s hard to put my finger on it but I think it has something to do with only shelves, furniture, and signage dividing the space into different sections, whereas in Blackpool painted walls and decorations are used to create spaces (for example the children’s section). Then again, perhaps this only reflects my personal opinion about white walls being inherently uncosy, it seems to be a ”neutral” standard in apartments as well and I’ve rented plenty of places where the walls had to be covered in posters and photos to combat the eerie feeling of being lost in a desolate snowstorm. Either way, the colours of Blackpool were wondrous and if I remember correctly the decorations had been made by a local artist (maybe even a former staff member?) and the imaginative bookcase seems to have been built by local dads.

Supporting dads through collaboration with the charity Dads Matter UK was an interesting focus that I haven’t really noticed in libraries before (maybe I’m just unobservant) and it made me think about libraries as an important place for such activities. Libraries are neutral and open spaces and even if you go their for peer support groups to help with your anxiety etc. no one seeing you at the library would immediately know the purpose for your visit – you might just as well be there to print documents, get books with your children, or use the bathroom. The broad scope of library activities (and activities taking place in the library) by design helps protect the privacy of the individual who participates.

My usual library tourism is just popping in at the public library in the place I’m visiting and have a look around. If no people are around I might take some pictures and I’m a fan of studying the event boards to see what kind of activities libraries and their partners (for example local organisations) arrange. Sometimes friendly library staff ask if I want any help and sometimes this will lead to a short conversation about me being a librarian and that I like visiting libraries whenever I travel somewhere. In Blackpool I started talking to librarian Jools who prompted by my story started sharing facts about the library and the town. Unfortunately, I got to the library just 15 minutes before closing time on September 28 so we didn’t have much time, but Jools kindly invited me back the next day to see the upper floor and to hear more about the library’s activities.

One remarkable feature of the library is the stained glass windows that were made for the library’s centenary in 2011. They were created through consultation with community and staff members and the themes of the windows reflects Blackpool’s history, present, and future. By each window there was a sign explaining the window and I’ve included an image of the Freedom window explanation in this post (the text: FREEDOM: Words, knowledge, ideas all create new ways of thinking and ways of living. This window celebrates freedom of thought and speech.) I’m sure anyone familiar with me or my research can imagine how much this resonates with me. You can read more about the centenary redesign of the library here, or the making of the stained glass windows here.

The library also offers a lot of activities to support its community’s social, reading, and IT skills needs – among other things (see image of the event board to explore further). When I met Jools the next morning she had just broadcasted a digital story event through the library’s social media. Here’s an example of a digital story session on Blackpool Libraries’ facebook page, and below is an image of the studio which was a corner of her office. I’ve understood (not just based on Blackpool) that in many public libraries digital events have started and/or expanded during the pandemic, and they continue to be a vital part of post-pandemic library services to make sure the library can reach all of its users.

There always more to say and write and tell, but I’m wrapping up this post and I hope your curiosity will lead you to this amazing library one day. Going back to my British friends who said Blackpool was a rundown resort that had seen its best days I’d have to say that whatever else in the city may lead to this impression the library certainly doesn’t. It is such an imaginative, beautiful, and friendly space and I hope and assume that Blackpool citizens share my sentiment about the library.

True North? Yes, All Library Compasses Point at Lancaster University Library

Whenever I’ve heard Lancaster I’ve thought about Safe Warm Lancashire Home. This all changed the past summer when I went to the LIBER conference in Odense to give a presentation on cultural heritage hackathons and met Andrew Barker, university librarian at Lancaster University, who spoke about enhancing digital discoverability of special collections in the same conference session. The thing that really got my attention in their presentation was when Andrew presented Lancaster University as small enough to innovate and build community, putting them in a great position to explore new practices – ”Through disruptive innovation, we will build lasting change” I quoted in my tweet from the event (here are some of my other LIBER tweets, in case anyone’s interested).  Being ”small enough” means the university is not so big that any innovation gets immediately drowned in bureaucracy and conflicting interests, and still not so small that the organisation has too few resources to be able to innovate. It seems to me to be a sweet spot for library innovation, and the approach (disruptive innovation! lasting change!) really speaks to me. I would’ve applied for a job on the spot if I wasn’t already so pleased with where I am right now (and also because of Brexit).

As I had already planned to spend a few days in Manchester after my conference marathon in Ireland I asked Andrew if I could stop by for a visit in early August and to my utter delight he said yes, so on August 3 I took the northbound from Oxford Road towards Windermere, passing old cotton mills and the stations of Wigan and Preston before arriving in Lancaster, a city built of yellowy gray stones rather than the Mancunian red brick buildings I had just left. I walked into town and switched to a city bus taking me to the campus of Lancaster University, situated south of the city centre and built in the 1960s. The buses normally stop in the Underpass (oh stop it with the Morrissey references!) which would immediately take you to Alexandra Square, the university’s main plaza, but during my visit there were some Underpass and road closures around campus (makes sense do to the traffic work during the summer holidays) so I arrived at the library gates from another direction, after having stealthily followed some other bus passengers who didn’t seem as lost as I did, hehe.

Alexandra Square at Lancaster University

Alexandra Square at the centre of Lancaster University. Library entrance to the left in the inner corner.

Because of the summer holidays a lot of my pictures will look quite empty. However, walking around the campus it was really easy to imagine how vibrant and welcoming it would be during the year, buzzing with students and staff on their way to lectures, people, and places, enjoying their coffee and their discussions in one of the campus cafés (I had one of the best coffees I’ve ever had when I was there so the coffee really is worth mentioning – that was some proper intellectual fuel!)

I entered the library and was welcomed by Andrew who gave me a splendid tour. The library is still located in the same place as when it was opened by Philip Larkin in January 1967, and it has since been extended twice, I think, with the most recent extension being opened in 2021. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, these extensions are quite hard to notice in the library. The spaces flow seamlessly into one another, very clearly giving the impression of one library (rather than spaces being divided into the old part and the new part, which is quite common in libraries with extensions, cf. Carolina Rediviva and Turku City Library).

In the newest extension, which is built to reflect the new vision of the library, there are 450 new study spaces (that’s a lot! as a comparison reading room A at Carolina Rediviva has 82 study spaces). The spaces are divided into different areas, taking into account sound levels, types of furniture, open spaces and smaller nooks, computer equipment… all to cater to different needs and wants of the library users. This is obviously quite common when building or remodeling library spaces, but nevertheless exciting to see because of the level of ambition and the success of it in the Lancaster library. I was overwhelmed by a sudden need to sit down and study in at least five spaces we passed because they looked so inviting and pleasant, it was like balm for the mind.

All floors of the building had been gifted with green walls. They’re described in the press release as ”[l]iving walls of expertly selected, glossy, vibrant plants, intermittent trickling watering systems and an array of tastefully chosen, stylish furniture all add to the calm, relaxing environment” and I think that sums it up quite well. Why we don’t make these everywhere? It seems like the kind of thing that could be easily incorporated into older buildings as well? I felt like Alice in Wonderland when I took the spray bottle and followed the ”please mist me” instruction. I’m sure it was more therapeutic for me than the plants – I just had to take a five minute break in writing this to reminisce about this moment.

While on the topic of green in the library, I also got to meet the library tree Norma! The tree was named through a vote where 41,5 % of the 1330 votes were cast on Norma (I’ll just assume Tree McTreeface was a close second).  The tree grows in an inside courtyard which is also a space for events in the library (such as the university librarian DJ’ing to welcome new students or library festivals!). Since the study spaces on the floors above this courtyard are silent reading spaces there has to be a careful balance between events and study spaces so as not to disrupt too much. However, there is quite a large amount of silent study spaces elsewhere in the library, so when events do take place it’s quite easy to temporarily redirect users in need of quiet spaces to other parts of the library.

Another place for silent studies is the main reading room, a room I really enjoyed because of the different type of desks and because of the amazing light in that room. It had a temple-like feel to it. To give you an impression of the library as a whole I also added some images from the third floor bridge below. The library is generally very spacious and very bright. I like that. It’s a bit like being in a Star Trek city in the future, you know the ones from TNG when it was still very utopian.

We also looked at the space for postgraduates in the library which was currently being refurbished to better suit the needs and wants of the postgraduate students. It took me back to the time when I was active in the student union at Uppsala University and advocated for specific reading rooms and/or spaces for master students at the university library. There had been a decrease in the use of reading rooms at the library, partly because doctoral researchers over time had gotten better working conditions (such as salaries and offices), so one way to repurpose this reading rooms would’ve been to dedicate some spaces to students. However, specific spaces for master students were instead organised by the faculties and usually in leftover rooms in the campus buildings (mine was in a basement and we rarely went there), completely disregarding the potential synergies of an interdisciplinary research environment. I still don’t know why but I assume this was related to either money, prestige, or a siloed organisational structure (or possible all three). Either way, things hadn’t changed much when I came back to work as a librarian at the same university a few years later.

Looking at Swedish higher education statistics we do have steady increase of international students who come to Sweden to study at master programmes (97 % of the incoming freemovers were studying at a programme in 2020/21 – most of them at a master programme – compared to 80 % in 2013/14, and most students who pay tuition fees are in master programmes as well) so in one way it’s baffling that we’re not better at adapting our higher ed infrastructure (including libraries) to accommodate for this group. The post-Bologna master’s craze led to many new programmes but I feel we’ve missed something crucial in creating the best study environment for this group – both regarding spaces and events. This group would also be less involved in student politics, for several reasons, so it’s hard for (especially international) master students to efficiently advocate their interests.

Anyway, comparing those experiences with the development of the postgrad spaces in Lancaster shows what a university and university library could be like, and how they could work with their users to make the best out of everything for everyone. However, the last I heard from my library (I’m on leave until 2024 for my doctoral research) didn’t make me super hopeful about a positive, student-friendly development during the next 10 years… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Maybe the student union needs another library focused student union party? (Yes, I was in one of those. It was started by the magnificent Moa Ekbom.)

Last but not least (there is really so much more to say about my visit to Lancaster University Library, so maybe I’ll add more to this post later on), a thing that really impressed me was the fiction collection which aimed to function a bit like a public library, a cultural living room, for the university students. Since the university is situated on a campus a bit out of town, and students tend to live on campus and spend a lot of time at the campus, it becomes a sort of small society in itself. It is therefore natural and necessary that the university library takes on a wider role for its community than, say, a university library within 10 minutes walking distance from a public library would do. The collection on the photo is meant to provide leisure reading for the students, and other activities and events at the library (such as the festival mentioned above) also bear witness to how the library consciously takes on this pivotal role. When Andrew explained this mindset I was very impressed by the fact that university library management could so astutely observe and act on their role in the wider scheme of things. Well done!

Leisure reading in the fiction collection and the library as a campus living room.

Inte heller har jag cigarrer

En vän till mig sade: ”Jag måste läsa böckerna Evelyn Waugh har skrivit. De måste vara bra – han är fullkomligt vansinnig!” Jag hade, precis som hon, med mig Johan Hakelius Döda vita män i Londonpackningen, men hade valt att börja läsa en annan bok i stället. Boken innehåller mycket riktigt porträtt av fullkomligt vansinniga människor. Det mest vansinniga i boken är dock Hakelius eget, mycket förmätna, förord, som hade gjort sig bäst om det inte gått i tryck.

Hakelius raljerar om ondskapen i att ”fnysare” och ”morrare” inte uppskattar döda vita män (och ja, jag antar att titeln innehåller adjektivet, inte imperativet) och att det minsann gör dem till tråkiga människor. Ja, han är ju inte så rolig själv, så det finns väl antagligen en kosmisk mening med att han är född till denna samtid, högst levande vit man, bland alla dessa tråkig människor.

Annat är det med Evelyn Waugh, som är fantastiskt rolig på ett sätt som bara skattesmitande överklass kan vara. Han har för sina skrifter börjat ta betalt in natura, för att undvika skattemyndigheterna, och ska få cigarrer skickade till sig från Amerika:

Käre Pete,
Var är mina cigarrer? Vad ger amerikanerna för förklaring till sitt avskyvärda beteende? Har cigarrerna skickats? När?
Jag struntar i om amerikanerna sätter den där reklamtexten på min bok, men de måste skicka cigarrer.
Jag bryr mig inte om att polackerna publicerar noveller. Jag bryr mig om cigarrer.
Jag har inget nytaget fotografi av mig själv. Inte heller har jag cigarrer.

Det hela är vansinnigt roligt. Jag fastnade också för några betraktelser som var citerade i kapitlet om George Orwell. Om humaniora:

Naturvetenskaplig utbildning för massorna kommer inte att göra någon nytta, antagligen en hel del skada, om den bara handlar om mer fysik, mer kemi, mer biologi, och så vidare, på bekostnad av litteratur och historia. Det sannolika resultatet för en genomsnittlig människa skulle bli att omfånget av hans tankar krympte och att han blev mer föraktfull än någonsin gentemot sådan kunskap han inte besatt.

Om böcker:

[…] om vår bokkonsumtion fortsätter att vara på samma låga nivå som hittills, låt oss åtminstone erkänna att det beror på att läsande är ett mindre upphetsande sätt att fördriva tiden på än att gå på hundkapplöpning, bio eller puben och inte på att böcker, köpte eller lånade, är för dyra.

Även om Hakelius själv anstränger för att framställa sig som en tråkig man på tvären mot allt så har han ändå samlat ihop en mycket rolig bok. Det är roligt med anekdoter. Det är roligt med människor. Många saker är roligare på håll, än om man själv skulle drabbas av dem. Alla verkar göra så fantastiska saker, men som Hakelius själv skriver så är hyss som att sätta eld på Themsen utan särskild vedergällning få förunnat.

Bokens samlade historier kan alltså på sätt och vis ses som grädden på dödvitman-moset. Och det kan ju räcka med den, när det nu handlar om underhållningsvärdet
Blommig byxdräkt från Asos, basker från pappa, gult nagellack (äntligen rätt nyans!) från Superdrug