Saturday, 12 July 2008

Site 4: The Barbican Library

July 10, 2008

“A building where there is always something rich and strange going on.” The Guardian, March 2007

The Barbican Centre prides itself on being hip and cutting edge; and according its website, is in fact the largest multi-arts centre in Europe: featuring art, film, music, theatre, dance and education -- "all under one roof and under one creative direction." Pretty happening, man. The most happening part being, of course, that a public library is not only attached to the centre, but is indeed a valued and central element of it.

On our visit to the Barbican Library, we are met at the door by the children's librarian, Amanda. It's a bit surprising, for me at least, but an interesting change of pace; after all the glorious decrepit books we've seen, we find ourselves being lead into a room filled with low shelves, bean bag chairs, and colorful banners hanging from the ceiling. If I close my eyes and squint, I could be back in my second grade classroom. I'm almost certain that the carpeting was this very same brown-green mix, vintage 1979.

In addition to (and partly, I daresay, because of) its decor, the Barbican Library has a warm and genuinely happy air about it. These librarians are not simply going through the motions of a tour. They're proud of their small, orderly library -- and rightfully so. You know librarians are happy when they, off the record, are asked whether they are satisfied with their yearly budget and funding -- and their answer is a yes. A yes! It makes me a little sad that having enough is such a shocking revelation. This is the first time that someone, anyone, working with public funds, to outfit a community with pertinent services and materials, with national standards to maintain, has even come close to suggesting that yes, they have the means to do so. Forget the tabloids, this is way juicier news than any piece of scandal Prince Harry can cook up.

Sufficiently intrigued with what other wonders the Barbican Library has in store, we take our knee-level seats and wait our turns before speaking. A run-down of the Barbican Library's figures, facts, and perhaps a little fiction:

A good reason as to why the Barbican Library can serve the City of London as well as it does lies in that the community is so small, hovering around 9,000 people. While a bustling center for business, the city is not so much a domestic paradise. The library takes full advantage of the fact, and their programs thrive: in weekly, 30 minute blocks, the children's library holds classes for nearby schools, as well as groups for after-school and younger children. Parental supervision (outside of class) appears to be a must; when we asked of censorship and borrowing privileges (i.e. for material outside of the age range/children's section, expensive items [they have an ipod-loaning program for audio books!]), Amanda assured us that "they had a talking to with their parents first." I'm not quite so sure how that would hold up in the States, issues of privacy, intellectual freedom coming to surface, but it is very like a small community in this character -- that sooner or later, everyone's business becomes public knowledge.

Still, even when crossing shaky ground, the merit of their programs cannot be denied. One such great project (government-funded, even) is Book Start, which aims to equip every child with three packs of books before the age of 5. And it is not only a smart endeavor, but a successful one at that: 90% of London's children utilize the program. It seems a no-brainer that, well, when given free books -- who would be the fool not to make the most of that? But without properly advertising the service, without stocking public libraries within each county, without ensuring that the process of obtaining the packs is painless (and how many government projects can boast of that?) -- the public will not jump through hoops. And to my own jaded mind, I would suspect, what's the catch? Thankfully, the City of London is of a more hopeful nature, and the Barbican Children's Library a resource that does not disappoint.

A greater depth of children's programming in libraries is accounted (which, to save time and possibly... interest, I will only divulge upon demand), and we adjourn finally for biscuits and tea. A huge gold star for the Barbican Library! (My devotion is easily bought.)

Upon our return, we head to the Music Library, our librarian guide here one Liz Wells. Her information is of the impressive, if oddly phrased variety: Barbican's Music Library is one of two of the largest music libraries in London (which I assume means it's number two. No shame in that, Barbican!). It's especially impressive when we consider that it basically started from scratch in the 1980s. One of the first sights, standing evidence of the library's Second-is-the-best status, is its CD collection, 16,500+ items strong. Organized by genre, then by single artist or performer/group, the CD collection is a great resource for music lovers (and by making its genre categories relatively broad, remits them from arguments with ardent fans). Given the popularity of mp3/mp4 formats and online music venues, the demand for CDs has as a result dropped in recent years. To meet the changing needs of its users, the library has made efforts to promote online music databases and services (such as Oxford Music Online and Grove Music Online). The response, Liz is excited to say, has been "quite good."

The most noticeable (and arguably, most awesome) feature of the Music Library, however, has to be the electric piano near the entrance doors. Users are able to test out musical pieces to see if it is to their liking, and I love that this level of access is available. Library patrons are obviously in love too, as Liz informs us that the piano is booked (one hour slots per day) from opening to closing. Most people use it for general practice rather than to take a stab at the library's sheet music, though, and I'm reminded of my own library's public computers, and how they are meant for research, but really, I have my suspicions that they are personal offices for more than a few.

The collection of sheet music goes beyond the piano, of course, and is cataloged by arrangement (i.e. vocal: single, duets, choral, chamber, and so forth). Unlike the CD collection, which relies on user statistics to weed out unpopular items (and it is here that we are sadly informed that a huge music fundraiser goes on every January! Prices are slashed so low the exchange rate is only midly painful!) -- the sheet music selection saves its pieces for archival purposes. As much of the print music is no longer being printed, the library often has in its possession a rare copy of certain pieces.

After oohing and aahing for some time, I finally notice that it is strangely quiet for a music library, the only sounds coming from, well, us. Passing listening centers that are headphone-compliant, and the aforementioned headphone-compliant electric keyboard, I remember that we are in fact still in a library, which is attached to other library sections; and while sounds must and do travel from other parts of the Barbican Centre, having a musical extravaganza would probably be pushing the button too far. But with everything in the library circulating, save for periodicals and reference material, people are free to make as much noise as they like at home (with the consideration of their neighbors in mind, with all due hope).

Still, as with any library, improvements to be made are always on the horizon. One such area in the music library is the DVD loans, which are on the pricey side £2.75/week -- nothing on Netflix, to be sure. And the act of loaning materials, print or electronic, comes with it copyright concerns. Such infringement can be easily spotted and snipped in the bud while in the library, but librarians cannot control what people do in their own homes (although the frequent signs everywhere -- and I mean everywhere -- proclaiming that CCTV is in play has me wondering). I can't help but question whether in the future the turn-your-head-and-look-the-other-way approach is going to pass muster. Are we to be responsible for our patrons actions, as mediums between them and others' intellectual property?

On a less paranoid note, the library itself is anything but Big Brother-esque, no iron fists in sight. We are still in the Barbican Centre, after all, it of the artsy-fartsy persuasion.

Venturing out into the main library, the adult section, we meet briefly with Jonathan, the IT librarian. This is another nice surprise, as we were only scheduled to see the Children's and Music Libraries. Jonathan gives us a whirlwind tour of the adult library: low shelves for easy access, art and book displays for suggested reading (by interest topic, age range, among others), the convenience of having a circulation counter as well as self-checkout stations. But he is most enthusiastic, it is certain, about one thing: RIFD technology. The first reader he shows us is a well-oiled machine of awesome, able to read twelve items (seen to believe it) in one fell swoop. The second reader he shows us is possibly the geekiest device ever made, which of course made it cool. Shaped like a machine-gun with a RIFD wand at the end, it's intent is to be mobile when reading tags. It's such the epitome of geek cool that it's a crying shame that it doesn't work.

But one day! Librarians will be armed and ready.

The Barbican Centre homepage
The Barbican Library

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