Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Barbican Library

very once in a while, one comes across a truly great public library. Sometimes it is because of their collection, sometimes it is because of the sheer beauty of the place, sometimes it is because of the people who work there and the efforts they put into making that library a place people want to come. And every once in a while you find a library which is all of these things, my favorite library for example. The Barbican Library in the City of London is one such library.

Barbican is a section of the City of London, close to St. Paul's Cathedral. During the London bombings of WWII, this area was pretty much decimated. During the1960's and 1970's this area was transformed into a massive complex with many towers of apartments, restaurants, an Arts Centre, the Museum of London, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the City of London School for Girls, a YMCA, and the Brabican Library. This huge complex provides the public and residents endless cultural events and activities.

Situated in the heart of London's financial district, known as The City, Barbican's residents are primarily single men between the ages of 25-45. However, the collection at the library caters to many different demographics. They house a collection of Management and Accounting materials to cater to the business crowd. But there is also an Arts section which provides materials on pure, applied, craft, and performance arts.

Despite the small amount of children who live in the complex, the children's section is almost always busy with little ones. There are a few primary schools close by and a number of day care facilities for the working folk. But most remarkable about this section is the efforts the staff go to in order to bring events to the library and to bring the library out to the public. Twice a week the library hosts what they call "Rhyme Time" in which the librarians, the parents, nannies, and au pairs along with the little ones play games and learn through rhymes. They host reading challenges for children and have prizes. They have 3 different reading groups for young adult readers. They bring their collection out to nurseries. They host a gaming group called The Warhammer Club. Each week they host a new event, have crafts, or have a special speaker. Basically, the staff go so above and beyond to make the library an engaging, fun place for kids to come while fostering an environment of learning.

One unique collection this library holds is an assemblage of about 9,000 books on the history of London. About 1,000 of these books are in the stacks for patrons to peruse. The remaining books are housed elsewhere but are in the library catalogue and are available for patrons to check out. Even the oldest book in the collection from 1742 is available to check out.

Barbican is housed in an epicenter of cultural events, many of which surround music. With the Guildhall School of Music just around the corner, the Barbican Library has established for its self an amazing music library. They have the largest CD collection in the UK, around 17,000 CDs for all musical tastes and backgrounds. There is even a new section the staff is just starting to play around with called "Unsigned London." Local musicians who have produced a CD but are not signed to a label can donate a CD to the library where eager listeners can find the up and comers in the music scene. So you can honestly say, "I loved them way before everyone else did." There is also an exhibition space which currently features a display of picture records. Right now, Billy Idol is staring some kid in the face who has never seen a real record before. Luckily for the library, the music library staff work only in the music library. This works well for a number of reasons. The staff must have a comprehensive knowledge of music so the patrons are really getting the best help they can get. This also makes it possible for the music lib staff to manage their part of the library without having to be pulled away to help the regular staff with something. The library has more than 9,000 items including instructional DVDs, CDs, musical publications, composer society journals, 5 listening booths, 5 laptop booths, 2 keyboards, and scores and scores of, well, scores! Sorry, just had to do it.

Management of these diverse collections has become a little easier (and a little harder) through the use of a new technology called RFID. Radio Frequency Identification Scheme, which is the full title, uses tags which are placed in books and other materials. When brought to an RFID machine and your card is swiped, the machine automatically reads the tags and assigns them to your account. This allows for more efficient management of a collection, easier and faster check-out for patrons, and will even notify the patron if there is a missing element from the item. For example, if you are checking out a boxed set of ZZ Top and there are many CDs but one is missing, the RFID machine will read the tags of all the CDs present and will flash red when it recognizes the missing tag is not there. All this newfangled technology has its hiccups though. There are still some funny glitches that do occur and there is the argument that a machine like this is essentially getting rid of someone's job.

There are pros and cons to everything and as librarians we have to make tough decisions. Do we use a new technology that will make this easier but that harder? Do we use new technology without knowing of our patrons will choose to use it? Do we modernize to strive for efficiency or merely to prove that we are still relevant in the world of Google? Do we adopt a technology that might replace the job of a human being? Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes the answer is no. But it is our job to come up with those answers when the question arises.

More than the music and the technology and the beautiful views, the reason this library is such a wonderful resource is because of the people who run it. The staff are truly dedicated to fostering an open environment and creating a space and collections that will enrich the communities they serve. All of their efforts are spent bringing unique opportunities and encouraging the public to use them. They were even so kind as to offer these poor little graduate students juice and biscuits in their personal break room.

This is the kind of library which makes one want to work in a public library.

*The amazing display cap above is by Jessica Hische, an amazing designer I came across in my perpetual search for awesome design and typography. The letter comes from her Daily Drop Cap project.

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