Visit 15/01/13- Westminster Reference Library


On Tuesday a group of us went on a visit to Westminster Reference Library. The first striking thing about the library is its location directly behind the National Gallery and yet one would not even know it was there unless told, making strengthened awareness of it imperative to its survival. To begin the visit Peter talked us through the history of the building which was built on the site of a house once owned by Sir Isaac Newton and thus rebuilt in a matching style. He then began the tour with the dark and bare basement; the only remaining part of the original structure. In contrast to this the tour moved up a floor to the modern business hub where Eveleen explained the variety of users it attracts and how the library has adapted to meet their needs. We were also shown the general work space and the bookable study space on the mezzanine which gives members the option to arrange meetings, study groups and more in a more formal environment. The second floor is the main area for exhibitions and also houses the Arts and Design collection which has been designated as a collection of ‘outstanding national significance’ claiming over 45,000 reference works plus 4,000 for lending. Many of these books are, by necessity, housed out of the reach of the public but there are numerous signs encouraging readers to ask for anything they cannot find on the shelves and the amount of people filling the desks during our visit was a testament to the importance of work space in such a busy building.

Staff have managed to utilise the prime location of the library to their advantage by creating a comprehensive business hub to draw in the large numbers of commuters who pass through the city each day. There is a wealth of information available to both established businessmen and women and to those wanting to start up their own businesses. In addition to books and periodicals available within the library, membership also offers 24 hour remote access to websites such as COBRA making it an invaluable resource to anyone in the business world. Several of us joined up on the spot and I for one have already made use of some of the extensive online resources available for members. In addition to the business databases there is also access to newspapers, encyclopaedias etc. Having been in London for several months I am slightly ashamed that until this point I had not made the most of some of the resources available to me which in itself highlights the growing importance of social outreach; something that this library is at the forefront of promoting.

Probably the most innovative strategy for raising awareness of the library is their programme of events throughout the year. Rossella showed us a variety of posters and videos from previous events and discussed how popular they have been; indeed their spaces tend to booked over a year in advance. Far from being a detached use of the space after the library has shut, many of them tie in with the library’s focus on arts and performing arts such as play readings and lectures. In addition to this Peter explained to us how they display relevant items from the library’s holdings to compliment the art exhibitions held on the second floor. In this way they are able to both attract new readers to the library and also to extend their involvement with the subjects they specialise in. In a time when the future of public libraries is looking somewhat bleak it was wonderful to see a library adapting and solidifying its place within the community; certainly not an easy task in central London!

Whilst the specificity of the two main collections do certainly set Westminster aside from a typical public library it was great to be able to speak about the common problems they encounter such as homeless people seeking shelter and young people wanting a space to socialise and how they try to manage such issues. Far from encouraging exclusivity as a preventative measure, membership is easily attained and resources such the free legal advice hub, and the Life in the UK practice tests ensure that everyone is represented and provided for, not just the academics and businessmen who pass through. Indeed as a recent graduate it was good to see the staff encouraging membership for students, allowing them somewhere permanent to work even after their studies have finished. Also, although primarily a reference library, there are books for loan on the top floor enabling users to take their research home with them when the library closes. Not only this but membership enables readers access to all lending libraries in Westminster. Overall it was an incredibly enlightening visit which myself and the other trainees are extremely grateful for so many thanks again to everyone at the library for their time and hospitality!

N.B. For more information about events on at the library visit their Facebook page:

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