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2013 Year in Review: Bristol Celebrates 400 Years of Library Service

Last month, December of 2013, the Bristol Central Library celebrated 400 years of library service in Bristol, England. As explained in a press release, part of the celebration involved recruiting “creative robotics collective Rusty Squid” to launch “Book Hive, a huge living sculpture which fills the Central Library's beautiful vaulted entrance hall with animatronic, movement responsive books.”

The installation - which is funded by an award from Arts Council England - will grow January and February, supported by workshops enabling members of the public to join in the fun, as well as a programme of book-related events.

Early feedback has shown that Bristol's readers are already enjoying the interactive experience offered by Book Hive, and are looking forward to returning to the library to see it expand. The artwork will be complete by mid-February, with a book to mark each of the library service's 400 years. The work will be on display until 7 March.

Volunteers have been trained as "Book Hive Keepers", responsible for helping library users engage with the artwork, gathering feedback and keeping the sculpture looking its best. Over 40 volunteers have been recruited so far, and they are enjoying the artwork as much as the library's visitors. Further volunteers are now being sought...

There is also the opportunity to donate books to become part of the sculpture as it grows. Staff at the Central Library will be delighted to accept hardback books between 180 and 250mm high and 110 and 160mm deep for possible inclusion the artwork.

Founded in 1613, the Bristol City Council’s Library Service is the third-oldest in England after Norwich, founded in 1608, and Ipswich, founded in 1612. For much of that time, it was a private, subscription library.

Merchant Robert Redwood donated the first building to house the library to the city government. This was a lodge on King Street the city corporation replaced in the second quarter of the 18th Century with what is now called the Old Library.

In 1772, the Bristol Library Society assumed control of the Old Library building. Men who did research there included the poet, literary critic, and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and the inventor Sir Humphrey Davy (1778-1829).

In the 19th Century, the Bristol Library Society and the City of Bristol entered a dispute because the public was frustrated that neither the Old Library nor the city government’s research library were open to the public and the Bristol Library Society desired the space occupied by the municipal research library for its own volumes. This resulted in the city government gaining control of the Old Library, which at that time became known as the Central Library, as well as the Bristol Library Society’s collection of 45,000 volumes.

In 1899, Vincent Stucky Lean (1820-1899), a rich bibliophile who had given up banking and the practice of law, left a bequest of £50,000 to build a new central library. He left the equivalent sum to the British Museum.

In 1902, Charles Henry Holden (1875-1960), then an associate of H. Percy Adams, with whom he later became a partner, designed the new Central Library which was built at a cost of £30,000. Holden would later design the Art Deco-style Senate House for the University of London, a building which is occupied, in part, by eight academic libraries known collectively as the Senate House Libraries.

In 1906, the new Central Library opened on College Green and also received the library collection of the Parish Church of St Leonard’s. The Old Library is now a restaurant.

Other important buildings on College Green include The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, more commonly known as Bristol Cathedral (which was St. Augustine’s Abbey until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII); St. Mark’s Church (the Lord Mayor’s Chapel); City Hall (formerly known as Council House); and The Great Gatehouse, which was the gatehouse of St. Augustine’s Abbey. The Central Library is adjacent to The Great Gatehouse and Holden designed the Central Library to compliment The Great Gatehouse.

The parapet of the Central Library is lower than on The Great Gatehouse. Holden’s library building has a steel skeleton and brick walls with an edifice of Bath stone. In the spirit of the Arts & Crafts movement, he paid equal respect to both the front and back faces of the building.

There is a Neo-Tudor oriel window over the arched entranceway. The building has towers and chimneystacks.
Much in the way the Chicago Public Building Commission (PBC) erected a multi-use building that combined the new Back of the Yards High School and the new Back of the Yards Branch of the Chicago Public Library, which opened last September, Bristol’s Central Library is going to make room to accommodate the Cathedral Primary School. In December of 2012, governors of a proposed new free school, the Cathedral Primary School (CPS), approached the Bristol City Council to lease parts of the 1960s section of the Central Library and remodel it to house the new school.

The Bristol City Council declined this offer “as it was considered this would remove prime functional space from the library and also impact on flexibility in the longer term.” The school governors replied with a proposal to lease the two lower floors of the original Holden-designed building from the Bristol City Council, that is, the basement and subbasement stacks.

These are the levels below ground floor level and are not accessed by the public so agreement was given for the school to explore this possibility.

On December 5, 2013, the Bristol City Cabinet approved this proposal.

The next stage is for the Department for Education to submit the Listed Building Consent application to the Local Planning Authority. The Holden Building, where the reference library is currently housed, is a Grade 1 Listed Building. The process normally takes between six to eight weeks for the Planning Authority to consider the application. This process will include consultation with key stakeholders including English Heritage and the Twentieth Century Society. The case may be referred to the Secretary of State if English Heritage or the National Amenity societies are not in agreement with the decision of the Planning Authority.

If the application gains approval then the school’s new accommodation could be completed and in use for September 2015 at the earliest. The primary school building needs to be near Bristol Cathedral Choir School’s dining hall (which is next to the Central Library), close to other senior school facilities and near to the cathedral to be cost effective and within safe walking distance for four-year-olds.

The majority of children at the Cathedral Primary School are most likely to come from within the city, most of them from the central city.

At present only 20% of books are accessible to online customers, while 80% are only in a literal card catalog, which of course means that access to the card catalogue is only possible for people who visit the Central Library. The Bristol City Council states, “This proposal offers the Central Library both the opportunity and the resources to examine its long term storage strategy. This includes considering what needs to be kept, identifying the most appropriate location for the stock being kept, and most importantly, identifying how to make it as accessible as possible to all is customers.”

General access to the reference book stock will be improved through a cataloguing project, as this will be available to all online, rather than dependent on attendance in person at Central Library. This is in line with what is happening in other libraries nationally and globally.

The reference collections will likely be moved to “B Bond, a building near Cumberland Basin, which can re-house the majority of the reference collections. The store would not be accessible to the public but items requested would be transported back to the Central Library on a regular basis.”

The estimated cost to move the books; place 80% of the reference books on the electronic, online card catalogue; move the reference books off-site; provide new rolling racking; and store the books off-site is £500,000 to £600,000. The Education Funding Agency (E.F.A.) and not the Bristol City Council will bear the cost.

There would be reduced premises costs for the library of around £45,000 per year (reduction in National Non-Domestic Rate (NNDR) also known as the business rate.

The EFA is responsible for the estimated £3,800,000 cost and delivery of all works at the Central Library Building. “Construction work will involve removing the infill mezzanine floor that makes up the first basement level of the library to create more open atrium space. The school would share dining facilities with the adjacent secondary school.”

There would be some disruption for a period of time to the core Central Library Service during any works and this would be carefully managed to minimise the impact on service delivery.

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