I really loved visiting the Barbican Library. A City of London public library, the Barbican is housed in the Barbican Art Centre, the largest multi-arts centre in Europe. Our hosts were Geraldine, a principal librarian, and Jonathan, another librarian who also works with IT at the library. We also had brief visits with other library staff throughout our time there. Geraldine explained that there are three Barbican lending libraries, of which this one is the largest, and one is a joint library with the housing office. Opened in 1982, the libraries are in the heart of a highly residential area (including the quite pricey Barbican towers).
Long past the days when the Barbican area was a strongpoint on the Roman wall, or host to the deaths of plague victims (“never mind that”, Jonathan joked) or a victim of significant bomb destruction during the Second World War, now the library enjoys safety and support from the nearby residents and commuters alike. The library is designed to provide self-service options and out-of-hours availability for its patrons and offers lots of online resources; however, some librarians expressed concern that not enough people know about the library and really wish to promote its strengths to the people of London. Jonathan told us that 10,000 people live in the City of London (and licenses are built on night time population numbers) but some 350,000 people pass through the area during the day. They want to support all of these people as well and work hard to make library materials available to the daily commuter. Before we started off on our tour, Jonathan answered a few quick questions from my classmates: yes, the materials are all cataloged using Dewey (but a slightly different version) and yes, they are changing library management systems at the end of the year (to Sirsi Dynix), which should be interesting, he said. Off we went on the tour!
My group first visited the Music Library and were visited by Richard Jones, the music librarian. The music library opened in 1982 as well, he said, and since has grown to have the largest collection of CDs (some 16,000! ) in London and one of the largest in the country, winning awards for their services and collections in the meantime. He showed us the exhibition spaces in the entry, currently focused on the BBC Proms and the BBC music library which was established in 1923. In the past, that space, among other things, has played host to Elvis memorabilia, information on music therapy, Bangladeshi music materials, and even a World War I-era rifle with bayonet. It’s important to build relationships with your community and partnerships with other organizations, Richard emphasized, in order to help enrich cultural life for everyone.
He showed us the various DVD and CD collections, including classical and opera music DVD recordings which are very popular, as well as an extensive tutorial video collection. The music library has two pianos with headphones that patrons can book for one hour a day, one day in advance, for free. Recently, three students from the nearby Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered 10 music lessons for retired people to enjoy for free. The music library has 9,000 books which cover all areas of music and try to strike the right balance between general and academic interests, Richard explained, and also has a large print reference collection. He also showed us the listening stations filled with CDs to match current events and exhibitions and the “Unsigned London” display of “unsigned” (to a record label) local musicians’ CDs. Richard gave us some parting advice, which was to be vocal and tell your managers what you’re offering for patrons. It looks like it’s definitely worked for the music library!
Next we had a small juice and biscuit break (very kindly provided by the staff) and listened to Natalie talk about the Barbican’s children’s library. With only 2 full-time staff and some library assistants, the department is incredibly busy serving kids from 0-14 years old. Children can borrow up to 12 books (out of the 23,000 in the collection) for up to 3 weeks with no late fees. All types of materials are offered by the children’s library (e-books, e-audio, books, etc.) for loan and staff also conduct Rhyme Time (story time) sessions three times a week. Local visits from schools and nurseries keep staff busy, as well as reading groups, after-school clubs, comic book groups, literary programs like “Read to Succeed”, the Book Trust’s “Book Start” reading pack programs, and the Summer Reading Challenge for kids ages 4-11. This year’s theme is Record Breakers, which sounds fun for kids of all ages. The day we visited they were building lots of interesting contraptions during their newly launched STEM club.
Carol, the head of libraries, briefly talked about the biggest challenges she sees currently facing public libraries, of which she said maintaining “relevance” was the most important. She acknowledged that space and budget issues are important as well, but what trumps it all is being able to say that the library has “something for everybody from cradle to grave.” There are issues of social inclusion in public libraries, she said, and that we must never forget the value inherent in protecting them as safe, open, and neutral community spaces.
Jonathan finished the last portion of the tour with us, beginning in the Art and Architecture stacks. As a general public lending library with around 10+ chartered librarians on staff, the library does buy quite a lot of materials regularly. He said they have about 200,000 monographs, about 160,000 of which are on open shelves. Some of Guildhall’s old books now constitute the London Collection, books about daily life in London. The oldest book for loan was published in 1739, which set Jonathan up for a joke when he presented us with “a very recent book from 1907…” Many of these items are fragile but he stressed, “if it didn’t go out, there would be no point in having it,” a view that I share. He also showed us a few of the 800 books from the pulp crime novel collection, which is 1920s-30s crime fiction that commuters would read on trains on their way to work.
The Barbican is (by design) not a very quiet library, as the machinery for the stage lifts is located inside the library’s pillars. The library had a lovely energy, busy with people browsing and reading and using self-service machines to check out or return materials. Jonathan demonstrated one of these and I got to keep the receipt, lucky enough! He explained how instructional materials will be issued for free, but there are small charges for printing, late returns, reservations, and ILL requests from the British Library. We closed the tour near the “Skills for Life” display, which was filled with materials on job interviews and exam preparation as well as books for kids and adults who are learning English. Jonathan said that if any of us should move to London, we are encouraged to join the Barbican. If I’m one of the lucky ones someday, I think I just might do!