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Belfast's Central Library redevelopment: The story where everyone is hoping for a happy ending


Ivan Little looks at a day in the life of Belfast Central Library

Ivan Little looks at a day in the life of Belfast Central Library

Belfast Central Library staff Sheena Gamble, Deborah Mulholland and Catherine Morrow

Belfast Central Library staff Sheena Gamble, Deborah Mulholland and Catherine Morrow

Ivan Little looks at a day in the life of Belfast Central Library

It's a library you could write a book about. From the moment you walk through its famous revolving doors at the front of the impressive and imposing Belfast Central Library facade, you sense that millions of people have been there before you since its opening in October 1888.

But while this iconic institution has an illustrious past, pre-dating the building of the City Hall and the Grand Opera House, its officials are hopeful it can have an even more exciting future if the money can be found to fund a multi-million pound refurbishment to belatedly bring the structure into the 21st century.

The Dumfries red sandstone library, designed by the noted architect W H Lynn, may be an architectural wonder that has been used in TV dramas such as Line of Duty, but inside the public spaces look tired and outdated, and visitors don't need to be well-read to realise the cramped library is in urgent need of a new chapter and a modern-day makeover.

Yet, it would be wrong to judge this particular book by its weary cover. For Central's heart is still beating, and sharing a day in the life of the library, which celebrated its 125th anniversary last year, is an eye-opener for anyone who thinks libraries of today are just about lending out thrillers, romances and biographies.

That really is only half the story. For Central library is home to all sorts of activities, such as creative writing initiatives, reading groups - including one for the visually impaired - plus job clubs and opportunities for the staging of lectures and theatrical performances. And there's also been a portable planetarium on site, which has attracted hundreds of visitors.

Just inside the front door, every one of the 24 terminals in the huge computer room is always busy. Branch librarian Mary Grieve says: "Sometimes, we have queues here, and the facility is especially popular with people who've come to Northern Ireland to live and maybe don't have a computer at home. It's free to anyone who holds a library card."

Nikki Terlik, a community outreach officer, is spreading the word about Central Library. She says: "A lot of people are aware of us, but they don't know about the range of services we offer.

"Many folk wouldn't have seen a library as a place to come, and we've even been told that some of them are put off by the grandeur of the building."

But the barriers are definitely falling, with classes for young mothers and babies and for nursery and primary school children demystifying the place. But officials are also luring the not-so-young.

Mary says: "We have a knit and natter group for more mature ladies who drop in on Tuesday mornings."

John Blaney, from Rathcoole, isn't a knitter or a natterer. But he is a regular caller. As he scans a newspaper, he says: "I think it's a very welcoming library. I like to come down at least twice a week and take out the odd book and catch up on what's happening in the world."

Like libraries all over the world, Belfast Central has had to embrace the digital revolution. Its high-tech services include DIY borrow and return facilities, and the latest innovation is an online breakthrough that will make more than 200 popular magazines available to download for free for members from early next month.

Communications officer for Libraries NI Deborah Mulholland says: "Libraries like ours here in Northern Ireland are constantly evolving and adapting to the changing times."

On the upper floors, at the top of Belfast Central's famous sweeping staircase, alongside marble statues by 19th century American sculptor Emma Stebbins, are perhaps the nerve centres of the library - the heritage room and the stunning part of the building where generations of young people have gathered under a magnificent dome to further their education.

What's not quite so well known is the music library, which has tens of thousands of books, scores, CDs, DVDs, vinyl records and videos. The Northern Ireland Music Archive there has recordings by local composers together with interviews and documentary material connected with the development of contemporary music here.

Around the corner is one of the library's biggest and most used facilities - its newspaper library, which is the biggest in Northern Ireland and which is a magnet for journalists, university and political researchers, plus tourists from all over the world who want to dig up their family trees and use death, birth and marriage notices to source information.

Catherine Morrow, the heritage services manager, says: "We also have visits from people who want to get copies of the front pages of newspapers from 70 or 80 years ago for their grandparents' birthdays."

The daily and Sunday newspapers from Belfast, going back to the 1700s, can be perused, along with the weeklies from right around the province, although access isn't open the way it once was.

Any behind-the-scenes visit to Belfast Central Library confirms it's a bit like an iceberg. What you see is not what you get. For only a tiny fraction of the books that the library own are actually on public display.

A quick tour of the "hidden" library is a jaw-dropping experience. Sheena Gamble, the area manager, is my guide. She says: "By the end of the 1950s, the Central Library had grown out of the main building, so they built what's called a book stack, which is six floors high, to store all the books that couldn't fit into the main building anymore."

Even with the new annex, the library kept running out of space, and the solution was to erect another towering book stack in the 1980s behind the original Lynn building, which is linked to the first one by a small corridor on the third floor.

Pretty they are not. But the annexes are jam-packed with thousands and thousands of books, and there's even a small political collection containing boxes of posters, publications and leaflets from the mainstream parties, although officials acknowledge that a similar archive in the Linenhall Library in Belfast is far bigger than theirs.

However, tucked away in one of the annexes is the undoubted jewel in the Central crown. It's the climate-controlled Fine Book room, which is home to a multi-million pound collection of publications. It's a veritable treasure trove of antiquarian volumes and rare manuscripts that space doesn't permit library officials to readily share with members of the public, but which the new renovation plans do.

Catherine Morrow points me to the oldest gem on the ancient bookcases. While the perfectly preserved Scrutinium Scripturarium, which was published in 1470, is unlikely to be in big demand, just to glance at a beautiful and lavishly bound book that is 544 years old is still something of a revelation.

Then there's the Fourth Folio edition of Shakespeare's works and manuscripts from Irish novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros and Belfast playwright Sam Thompson, plus thousands of others.

Catherine says that in the new library the idea would be to have many of the rarely seen books on show for the public behind glass. And best of all, not all the books are from the Dark Ages.

My eyes light on a book about George Harrison on the shelves. "That's a limited edition," says Catherine. "So that's a fine book of the future."

Many of the more valuable books in the Central collection were acquired at auction in the 1970s and 80s, when librarians had more money than their successors do nowadays.

But the new powers-that-be at the Central library are optimistic - cautiously so - that, even in the current all-pervasive climate of cuts and crises, which have forced officials to reduce opening hours and staffing levels, their latest publication - their ambitious blueprint for the future - will not be allowed by Stormont politicians to sit and gather dust on their shelves.

Mandy Bryson, the assistant director of Libraries NI, says the rebuild is a cornerstone of Belfast's wider Northside Regeneration Project and the development of the new University of Ulster (UU) campus.

She adds: "The UU are expecting to have up to 15,000 students using their facilities, which means that there will be 6,000 to 7,000 people coming into the area, which will be totally transformed.

"And we see the library playing an essential part in contributing to the regeneration." The plan is to completely refurbish the Lynn building and knock down the annexes at the back and replace them with a modern, spacious extension, making the whole complex fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Mandy Bryson says a draft business case has been with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure since July.

She adds: "We want to have creative labs because we would like to see the library as a creative hub for innovative programming, which would support people with their reading needs and their skills. We also want to have lots of spaces for performances and exhibitions."

Libraries NI daren't count their financial chickens, but if they got the go-ahead for the plans, which would involve a move offsite to temporary premises, they would hope that their new building could be open for business by 2019 or 2020.

Across the water, new libraries in Liverpool and Birmingham are establishing themselves as major draws for visitors.

Mandy says: "Libraries are all about participation now. And I'd love to see the Central Library being a really vital, dynamic space and somewhere that Belfast could be really proud of - especially as it opened on the very same day in 1888 that city status was conferred.

"There's little doubt that it has also a special place in the hearts of many people who perhaps studied at Central Library when they were young."

Mandy is a passionate believer in the good that libraries can deliver: "I think they can make a real difference to people. Reading for enjoyment can enrich lives, and I think it is so sad that an estimated 25% of the population can't read or write very well.

"I believe we are an important community resource. I know it's hard when the NHS is under pressure and everyone wants the best health service for their families, but libraries can do so much to help people with their mental health and social interaction.

"I don't mind what people read, just so long as they get enjoyment of it. And I don't care what format it is any longer. Personally, I prefer the physical book because I spend so much time working with a computer and it's too much like work to read something on a tablet or something like that."

In recent years, a number of branch libraries in Belfast have closed, but others - including those on the Ormeau, Whiterock, Falls and Shankill roads - have been renovated.

And staff in Royal Avenue are convinced that their dream of a new dawn for the Central Library will have a happy ending.

Shelf life... Belfast's Central Library by numbers

65 - number of staff

407,000 - number of books and papers stored in the library's annexes

55,000 - books which are on open access to the public

57 - hours that the library is usually open every week

54-and-a-half - number of hours the library will be open from November due to budget cuts

380,000 - number of people who use the library facilities every year

6 - number of quarters Belfast now has with the addition of the Library Quarter around the Central Library and the Belfast Telegraph. There is also the Cathedral Quarter, the Titanic Quarter; the Queen's Quarter; the Gaeltacht Quarter and the Linen Quarter

Belfast Telegraph