Oldham Library

Sign saying "A place for people and ideas. All are welcome". This sign at the entrance to Oldham Library pretty much sums up my entire philosophy of wht a public library is.  All people, and all ideas, are welcome.

This sign at the entrance to Oldham Library pretty much sums up my entire philosophy of what a public library should be. All people, and all ideas, are welcome.

My wife came home one day raving about this lovely library she’d been in.  This is not normal behaviour for her.  Being married to (I like to think) one of the premier library nerds in the country has caused her to be a little jaded on the subject sometimes.  Can’t think why. However, she told me she loved Oldham.  A great café she said. Hmm. Nice theatre too. That piqued my interest. Then I noticed that this same place was running a TEDx.  The world is neatly divided between people who have seen TED talks and those who haven’t.  I’m a fan of them.  They’re short talks by absolute experts on a multitude of fascinating subjects and I had not come across them being run in libraries before.  But that makes so much sense that they are.  After all, many libraries have the space (Oldham’s theatre only holds perhaps 80) and we’re in the knowledge and entertainment game, both of which are key parts of the TED offer too.  It’s a marriage made in heaven in fact.  So, that settled it, I had to go to Oldham.  This is what I found…

Oldham Library entrance

Oldham Library entrance

Oldham Library is a £21m PFI funded project opened in 2006. PFI gets a bad rap, and rightly so, but one of the upsides of it is that the place has to be maintained properly. There’s no tattiness in the building.  It feels new and not ten years old. The building is also combined with a lifelong learning centre and a (pre-existing) gallery.  Like all co-locations, there are issues with this but overall it looks like it works well, with natural crossover between the different user groups. The foyer is shared between the services and it’s rather nice.

The foyer is very modern, although it suffers somewhat from concrete.  What you can't see in this picture are the illuminated test tubes by the entrance. Oldham was the site world's first "test tube baby" in 1978

The foyer is very modern, although it suffers somewhat from concrete. What you can’t see in this picture are the illuminated test tubes by the entrance. Oldham was the site world’s first “test tube baby” in 1978

On the left is a very pleasant café, privately run and rented from the library.  It’s not a Starbucks or Costa – it’s more fun that that – and proudly suggests on its advertising that you can read a book while having a coffee.  I’m normally cautious about cafes in libraries as they’re unlikely to make the money that the overly optimistic suggest they will but they’re a welcome addition to any library that has the space and, being Oldham is one of the top twenty most visited libraries in the country, they have the footfall too.  A marriage made in caffeine heaven.

The next thing that strikes you is the effortless mixture of computers and books.  I’ve been to some libraries where you barely notice the books when you come in as they’ve been shoved out of the way to make way for PCs and council service points.  Not so here.  There are enough shelves, and enough new books, to please the traditionalist but also one hundred public access computers to please the student and those in need of the Online.  There is also easy-to-connect to wifi (no need to register with a username or password) but, disappointingly, its strength is poor and in some areas – like the performance space – is almost non-existent. You may not think having a wifi is the a theatre is important (rather the opposite in fact, possibly) but it prevented me from tweeting about the talks.

Not all that big: but big enough

Not all that big: but big enough

Ah yes, the performance space. It’s got a proper screen and projector but its not massive.  In fact, I think getting 80 into it would be a bit of a squeeze.  But its there and it’s got a great programme of events, with a packed leaflet.  But you wouldn’t know it from the truly dire library webpage. This text-only dinosaur of a monstrosity shows all that is bad about a council (not a library) controlled library webpage.  Text is running out of some of the windows, there’s no real promotion going on of the place, let alone of events.  The webpage is, in short, an embarrassment and shows what happens when a key shop window for an organisation is controlled by someone else whose priorities are not theirs.  Get it sorted, Oldham.  Anyway, the thing here is that many libraries have meeting rooms this big, although often not with multi-level seating, and so many could host a series of theatre productions and great things like TEDx talks.

A mediocre library webpage from circa 2005 somehow still surviving today. Get it sorted Oldham.

A mediocre library webpage from circa 2005 somehow still surviving today. Get it sorted Oldham.

There is a lot of attention to detail in this place.  The areas merge nicely into eachother but, very importantly, there is zoning.  This means that there is a loud and buzzing children’s library (it’s great – there’s lego, a wet space, special pram park and hooks for coats, love it) near to the study area but a wall means you san study in reasonable peace.  And a lot of people were. Computers are free to use for an hour or more and there were plenty of takers.  Those that are overly proud of libraries losing their “shush” image need to remember that a quiet study space is an unique selling point of the library.  In places, things have moved too far away from quiet and the noise actively turns off many library users. Not here I think. There’s space enough for both. And what does the sound of a happy buzzing library sound like? Press play below.

How's this for attention to detail and customer care? There are lockers for the public to use and they have specially designed artwork on their covers.  Notice the references to Oldham.

How’s this for attention to detail and customer care? There are lockers for the public to use and they have specially designed artwork on their covers. Notice the references to Oldham.

The place is well-resourced, with magazines and ordnance survey maps as well as books. There are also large collections of print material in other languages.  This is perhaps a good point to note that the library was heavily used by all groups while I visited, on a Saturday morning and afternoon.  There were large numbers from non-white sections of the community which was a pleasure to see.  I suspect the library does a lot of good for social cohesion in the town.

There is a “creator space” near the children’s area. This used to be for a makerspace but the Oldham Hack Space (encouraged by the library and in partnership with them) opened up somewhere else and so the room has been repurposed for craft activities.  There are a bunch of children’s board games in there as well.  One thing to look out for in the future is that they’re going to get some adult games (no, not that sort, rather, think Settlers of Catan).  On the other side this room is a wall with a lot of pro-library quotes on it. Nicely done.

Other points of interest in the building are the lifelong learning bits (which include a crèche), a garden outside, too much concrete (the only good concrete pillar in my book is painted concrete pillar) and the gallery (noticeably less used by the public than the library itself – ironically it was the only really quiet space in the building due to the lack of visitors), There are various museum pieces around the building too which accentuates the sense of place, as does the large picture windows which show some rather glorious panoramic views.

I've seen at least five different libraries now, including a few in the US, with that Doctor Who quote.

I’ve seen at least five different libraries now, including a few in the US, with that Doctor Who quote.

In conclusion, well, you can probably tell I like the place, It’s not been immune from cuts – it lost Sunday opening a couple of years ago – but you can be in this place and not be aware of Austerity.  And that’s interesting.  Like Liverpool and Manchester it was built before the current government started cutting back local public services in 2010 and, somehow, has avoided the PFI fate of the Library of Birmingham which is now a byword for financial over-ambition. There’s a good feeling to the place. It shows what a library can be, and should be, and has the capacity to evolve with the future as well.  It is, in short, genuinely open to all people and all ideas. Just like it says on the entrance.

Oh, and the TEDx talks? Excellent, attracting a whole bunch of interested people.  It was livestreamed by HackSpace Oldham (who had 800 views in the morning) and it’s now on YouTube (see below).  Incidently, tickets were sold electronically by Eventbrite.  I’m a convert to this technology having recently sold out a theatre event in a library almost entirely by using Ticket Source. Give it a go if you haven’t already.  And visit Oldham Library too.

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  • #1 written by Liz Waterland
    about 1 year ago

    Still no idea what TEDx is. Give me a clue!

    • #2 written by Ian Anstice
      about 1 year ago

      Hi Liz. A TEDx is a series of talks, normally short ones, by experts on various, seemingly random issues. The one at Oldham included – extraterrestrial life, makerspaces, face recognition, three dimensional vision in insects and the pitfalls of using the Tinder dating app. They are affiliated to, but not run by, the main TED series of talks which are far bigger affairs. Google TED, watch a YouTube TED video or watch it via podcast. They are fascinating and worth the effort.

  • #3 written by Ben Lee
    about 1 year ago

    Great piece Ian.
    The TED oganisation actually have guidance and advice specifically for public library-hosted TEDx events.
    https://www.ted.com/participate/organize-a-local-tedx-event/before-you-start/event-types/library-event

    It also looks from the TEDx previous events listings that last year there were TEDx’s in Nottingham Libraries, and Hackney Libraries. Though I did not spot them at the time.
    http://www.ted.com/tedx/events/15249
    http://www.ted.com/tedx/events/16501

    • #4 written by Ian Anstice
      about 1 year ago

      Pleased you liked it, Ben. Thanks for the TEDx guidance link and great to see other libraries have got on board.

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