VIDEO: Sneak peek inside Easton's extraordinary new J3 library
David Clensy gets a peek at the new J3 library in Easton that is bucking the national trend
IF you have been paying any attention to the media in recent months, you would be forgiven for thinking that the humble public lending library has had its day – worn away by decades of indifference, the slow rise of virtual book technology and then finally clubbed to death by local authority cutbacks following on the tail of the worst recession in more than a generation.
So you might be surprised to learn that later this month Bristol City Council is to open a shiny new library in Easton – the J3 library, so called because it sits beside junction three of the M32.
Like buses, you wait for a new library to come along for years, and then you get two at once – the city council will be opening another new library in Bishopston later this year – which happens to be the 400th anniversary of the first public library to be opened in the city.
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But the rumours of library cutbacks across the rest of the country are not apocryphal. Apart from losing our mobile library last year, the service has remained relatively unscathed here in Bristol.
Although Trinity Road Library and Cheltenham Road Library have been axed – both relics of a bygone library era (Trinity Road was one of the city’s earliest public libraries, where books have been gathering dust for more than a century), but they have both been replaced by the two new 21st century libraries.
So why have libraries been not only spared from cutbacks in the city, but positively invested in?
It’s a question I ask Kate Murray, the head of the council’s library service, as she gives me a tour of the new J3 library, which opens to the public on March 19.
“Politically there has been a feeling that libraries are an important public facility that shouldn’t be expendable in the city,” she says, as she leads the way through the trendy, bright-red architecture with its enormous porthole-like windows and its far from Victorian curvy paths through book shelves.
“And, of course, the library service is a statutory service – councils can’t just get rid of it at a whim, because they want to make cut-backs,” she adds. “But it is true that in other parts of the country the investment in local community libraries has been severely cut back, and some libraries have closed.”
That’s far from the case here in Easton, where the new library represents an investment of £3 million – two thirds of which came from the Big Lottery fund, with the rest being met by the council.
“The fact is that this project has been in the planning for nine years,” Kate admits. “So it predates the recession. There have been a few delays over the years – including a delay of a few months when builders found 78 bodies buried here – Victorian graves from the former neighbouring Methodist chapel.”
The bodies had originally been buried where the current M32 slip road now stands, but in the early 1970s, when the road was being built, they had been reinterred on the neighbouring plot of land. However records of the reburials were later lost – leaving builders to have something of a shock when they started digging.
The bodies have since been reinterred at South Bristol Cemetery.
“There have been a few delays,” Kate says. “But we’re here now, and this building is going to make a huge difference to people in Easton. The old Trinity Library had seen better days, and users were telling us for a long time that it wasn’t really in the right place – it wasn’t very accessible for people in Easton to get down to Trinity Road.”
The council quickly earmarked the new piece of land on the edge of the motorway junction for redevelopment.
“It was a run down corner,” Kate says. “It was covered with garages, lock-ups, a bit of scrubland and an old burger van.”
In fact, the small triangle of land was owned by 37 individuals – leaving planners with a logistical nightmare in bringing it all together for redevelopment, with compulsory purchases necessary in some cases.
But the new library was only possible because of a partnership formed by the council with the Knightstone housing association, who have developed the rest of the plot for 59 new homes – six four-bedroom houses, 15 one-bedroom flats and 38 two-bedroom flats (all of which are divided between rental and shared ownership properties).
“The presence of the new library, and seven small business units, which we have also incorporated into the plans, will give those moving into the new homes a sense of a real new community,” says Jayne Whittlestone, community empowerment team manage for Knightstone.
Visitors to the new library will be greeted by a lobby cafe, with vending machines, before walking through the shelves – where the best of the books from Trinity Road have been joined by 2,200 new books – an investment of £14,000 in the books alone.
As well as the traditional novels and reference books, the council has included large sections for Easton’s high non-native population, with books in everything from Somali and Indic languages to Chinese and Polish.
There are also dual language picture books designed to help youngsters learn the language in the new children’s library area, which has a “book tunnel” and, unusually, a slide as its centrepiece – gone are the days when children’s libraries where places where you would be thrown out by an irate librarian if you turned the pages too loudly.
There are the now mandatory banks of computers, where visitors can access the internet, two special children-only computers, and countless ranks of power points, for laptop adaptors.
“One of the things we find in the Central Library is that we just can’t get enough power points in to meet the demand of people wanting to plug their laptops in,” Kate explains. “So we made sure we had plenty here.”
It’s not the only innovation from the traditional library model.
“All the book shelves in the library are on wheels, and have been designed so they can be moved to the side to make space for community events in the evenings,” Kate explains, “we wanted to make the building as flexible as possible.”
There are further community spaces upstairs on the first floor – including a projector room where films can be shown – and the staircases are peppered with cases for community art exhibits.
The second floor of the building includes a series of office spaces – the city council hopes to find a local Easton firm who could move in as tenants.
“It all adds to the vibrancy of the place,” Kate says. “This whole development is going to inject new life into this corner of Easton. You don’t build a £3 million library like this with the short term in mind. This is an investment in the area that will be around for at least 20 years.”