Big New Libraries – Liverpool

I have seen a lot of glossy stuff about the newly massively refurbished Liverpool Library.  When I last went there five years ago, the interior was redolent of the 1970s.  Think brutalism and black marble when you got inside.  Horrible. So how much of a change can more than £50 million of PFI funding wreak in a place?  Well, me, my camera and the family set off on a day trip.  Let me tell you an illustrated story …

Seating outside

From the outside, it’s all nineteenth century grandeur.  The World Museum next door was heaving with families going in and out.  The big old entrance to the library accessible only via a massive staircase is closed now and you have to use a smaller entrance but that’s understandable because you could not get any less wheelchair accessible.  The new entrance has seating area outside and big signage: promising.

Writing odd red letters

It also has the name of books on the pavement.  One walks in on the name of classics.  There must be a reason why some have red letters in them but it is not explained.

Book return

Just before you go in, look to the right. Not seen one of these before.  24 hour book return machine.

Yet more writing

Walk in and look immediately to the left.  Nice writing on the wall.  It’s about Liverpool, as is a lot of the material on show, deliberately showing and instilling civic pride, as a good library should.

Glimpse of heaven

And this is what you see when you look straight ahead.  This is one of those “wow” moments you hear about.  The old library was nothing like this. You can see all the way up, with natural light coming in even on a dark rainy day.  Great clear signage too.  Lots of people as well: although I visited only a fortnight after opening during half term so this was perhaps to be expected.

Signage - Starship Enterprise

And when I say clear signage, I mean it.  Also, notice the emphasis on toilets.  There’s a LOT of toilets in this place.

Self-Service unused

Self-service machines are much in evidence but there are staff around too (although there’s no large counter as such), and not just the surprisingly friendly security guards standing by the doors.  They were all pretty busy.  A gruff chap accosted a librarian as she walked across the floor and then asked if his kids could join.  Great stuff.  It was notable that the self-service machines were getting less business than the members of staff were.  The bin on the left is for audio-visual and for books from other libraries, the trolley on the right is for items to go straight back on the shelf.

New books not many

New books, as they should be, are in evidence on the ground floor but there’s not many of them despite the Soviet Shop style efforts of display to make them look more numerous.  Two possibilities for this, the first being that so many people (15,000 on the first day) came through the doors that all the new books have been taken out.  The second possibility is that the money has run out – Liverpool is facing severe cuts and will be closing libraries this year.  What we could be seeing here is the contrast between munificence of the end of the Labour years when the building was started and the austerity of current times.


Speaking of current times, where would we be without a cafe.  Situated right at the entrance, it was doing good business.

Games room exterior

There’s a separate enclosed Games Room at the back, with console games and stuff.  A good place for the rowdy unaccompanied children to hang out I suspect.

Children's library levels

Turning to the right when you come in, you get to the United Nations Debating Chamber … um sorry, no, of course I mean the Children’s Library.  There’s a lot of computers all around the place, with barely half being used even on a busy half term day.  The space seems made for converting into a theatre space if necessary.  This may explain the untoward bareness of the walls.  But it’s a children’s library, for goodness sake, there should be more colour here, big pictures, fun.  Sadly, that seems to be missing a little.

Children's library seating

On the other hand, there was lots of seating around.  You could have twenty mums and dads all reading aloud stories to their kids no problem.  And bear in mind this is a busy half term and the place was busy but there was room to spare – this library has space like you would not believe.

Children's library big sign no books

Again, as everywhere, there were very few books in the place, although my children did find the books on puppies they wanted.  See that big “Discover” sign too?  That’s very common.  Big letters spelling out single words all over the place.

Stairway to heaven

Returning to the main library, take time to admire the nice shiny escalator.  There’s only one so you’d better hope it doesn’t break down.  There’s lifts as well but they were very slow when I visited.  So slow in fact I gave up and took the stairs.

iPad on stalk

I liked this a lot – there’s iPads all ready to go all over the place.  Just walk up to one and google away or check your emails.  They’re securely fixed (but is it secure enough the paranoid in me wonders?) and the power goes through the cable too.  Also, see that neon on the sides of the shelves?  That’s on some of the ground floor units too.  It serves to add a touch of colour and zaniness to what is otherwise quite a bland scheme.

Wide open spaces

Loads of computers with views down into the central stairwell.  Can you have too many computers?  The people who designed this place don’t think you can but the evidence suggests otherwise. Also, notice the TV screen suspended from the ceiling.  There’s a lot of those around, showing scenes of the rebuilding or of Liverpool generally.  There’s no sound on them and, by the way, no music or other distraction in the place.  The hubbub of the people makes you not notice.

Hornby Library

And here we have the books.  I’d have a heart attack if the books in my library were shelved like that.  Messy.  Lots of vacant space too,  Again, either a sign of great usage or of under funding, possibly both.  That sign saying Hornby Library is the first indicator of a wonderful side to this place,  as this otherwise ultramodern place has secrets …

Old clock

Check that out.  This is the same library – you walk through the door and – bam! – it’s the blinking late Nineteenth Century.  This room is beautifully restored and it’s glorious.  If you can, come to Liverpool and gently brush your hands along the shelves.  Your senses will be grateful to you for life.

Staircase old detail

It’s got these beautiful old staircases too.  When I was there, there were people all over it just looking and taking pictures.  This place is a major tourist attraction and not just to library obsessives like me.

Biggest iPad in the world

But here’s the thing: there’s modern technology in here too.  That’s the world’s biggest iPad in this old room, explaining its glories and history to those wise enough to look (or, in this case, my kids).  It vaguely gives the place a feel of a museum rather than a library but it works … because it is a library as well.  I bumped into someone I know while I was there happily using a book from the shelves because it was the only copy within fifty miles.  Beauty, utility and history in one.

Bird book behind glass

And there’s more.  Walk along a bit and you enter another room.  Oak-lined shelves, old books … and in the centre there’s this big book.  That’s Audubon’s “Birds of America” and it’s worth a fortune.  You can’t touch it but there’s another giant iPad in the room with the whole thing digitised on it, life size.  Totally Amaze Balls.

Ref books and students studying

Up another level now and looking down.  See all those books not being used?  And now look at that table.  Students were crawling all over the Library.  Every table had an undergrad at it, taking full advantage of the space, the wifi and the power points.  This is a co-located library in all but name.

Big signs = Archive

Mind you, in some ways, it is very very officially co-located.  The city’s archives are in here.  They have big lettering too … and the biggest yellow books this side of an omnibus large print telephone directory.


I know that some question the long-term point of buying new microfilm machines.  Old technology they call it as it is all about to be digitised anyway.  Well, they’d hate this place.  There’s more microfilm machines than you’d see in your life (there’s another forest of 15 or so out of picture).

Search room - that door is locked

And here’s the Search Room dead ahead.  You’ve probably not noticed the glass door in the centre of the wall.  I didn’t. Even if you do, you can’t open it because it’s locked but there’s no signage to this effect.  The nice chaps (and they were very friendly, in fact everyone was) on the left said that lots of people were trying that door – but it’s only opened by appointment.  Get a notice on it, pronto, my Liverpool Library Archives friends.

Big signs - meet

Upstairs again and into the land of the meeting room.  There’s quite a few here plus of course more omnipresent toilets.

Seating area on roof

And outside now for a breath of fresh air and a look at the cityscape. There’s a great outside area on the same level as the meeting rooms, with automatic doors so all can get out there.

Four floors and an observation dome

And that’s it.  Make sure you appreciate the steps and the views on the way down.  Try to avoid the architecture students photographing the place if you go in the next few weeks but DO go.  The place is a wonderful hymn to what libraries can and should be.  Everyone of all sorts were in the place, enjoying it and using it.  There were signs of austerity  but, make no mistake, this is a Ghost of Good Times Past that has somehow teleported into the present.  This place is what more libraries could have been like if the Austerity hadn’t for whatever reason (and I’m certainly not going to argue the case here) happened.  Even better, there’s more such miracles appearing soon.  Manchester and Birmingham will soon open their new or highly refurbished buildings and I aim to be there when they do.

With a camera.

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  • #1 written by Barrie Hodgson
    about 11 years ago

    Thanks Ian for the touring exposition of the library, with a fine critical appraisal of the good bits and amazingly missing bits in it. I am still intrigued by the red highlighted letters within the names of books on the ground? does this mean they were Labour supporters maybe or just to brighten up the text.
    Thanks for the illustrated report it is quite excellent.

  • #2 written by Katherine
    about 11 years ago

    I love flagship libraries with all the bells and whistles. And I’m glad this was place was re-furbished so well (although I completely agree with your assessment of the children’s area!) What is such a shame to me is that Liverpool is likely to close a further 10 branch libraries (including my own that I use on a weekly/twice weekly basis.) I’m a librarian willing to go the distance to get books and my kids into libraries-but I’m guessing a lot of other people aren’t!

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