Canada Water Library Visit 19th November 2013

Image copyright 2013
Nestling close to the water of the old dockyards, above the underground station is the rather imposing bronze ‘inverted pyramid’ of Canada Water public library. We were lucky enough to be taken on a tour behind the scenes of this ‘super library’. Set for a huge regeneration plan  Southwark council started, perhaps surprisingly, with commissioning a new library to be the centrepiece of the community they are building. Certainly one can see the current transition all around with the quaint wooden bridge across the water starkly contrasting with the crumbling architecture beyond. A few years from now it is planned that even more modern flat blocks will have been built and shopping centre expanded so it will need a central place for its new residents to gather; in this case it is hoped to be the library and the (currently empty) plaza it occupies.
Richard took us on a tour of the building which, on such a sunny day, benefits hugely from the light pouring in through large windows gazing out on the water. The central staircase creates a sense of occasion when entering the library; echoing the awe inspired by grand older libraries. We went up into the main reading room where it was children’s Rhyme Time then onto the second floor mezzanine where many readers were escaping the noise with laptops and headphones. We were lucky enough to go out onto the roof where there were some incredible views out across the London skyline. 
Photos by Alex Giles

The Green Roof

Intentionally built into the ground floor is a performance space with capacity for an audience of 150. Management of this space has been outsourced to The Albany group who organise productions throughout the year. It also gives the library a place to hold book launches and related events away from the main collection negating the need traditional libraries face of hastily rearranging the bookcases. In addition to the performance space, there are several meeting rooms of various sizes leading off the top gallery of the library. These are open to bookings from anyone leading to a diverse spectrum of activities (Yogameister anyone?). The performance space and the meeting rooms are great examples of how purpose-built new libraries can fulfil all of the changing roles of libraries within modern society. Thankfully books remain prominent, but it is also important to have other spaces which the community can utilise for other ends. In enabling this Canada Water library has placed itself at the centre of the community which is rapidly growing up around it ensuring its use and survival. Additionally revenue created by private bookings and ticket sales can go back into the library resources.
Membership is free and which includes use of the free wifi and pcs scattered about the library and the building is fully accessible to everyone. The collection itself comprises of 40,000 volumes ranging from children’s books and general fiction to reference materials on local history. Designed as a community library rather than an academic one their acquisitions policy focuses strongly on what will be popular among their readers which seems to have led to a rather large Manga collection. On the ground floor there is an independently run café, several computers and some book displays containing either new or popular books and themed displays suggesting related works people might enjoy (while we were there the theme was time travel). There are also self-service check-out machines enabling people to borrow books incredibly quickly if their schedule doesn’t allow for browsing. There is also a selection of audio-visual materials allowing users to borrow new films and cds etc. at a small cost. With many of the rental giants collapsing  it is sometimes easy to forget that there are still many people in the UK without internet access and therefore unable to access new popular services such as Netflix. This allows people to pop into the library (handily located above the tube station) on their way home and select something to watch/read. Furthermore the small fee charged by the library again allows them to make this process sustainable.

Top of the spiral staircase in the main reading room

It was quite refreshing to hear that Southwark do not (unlike many libraries) require that their staff are fully qualified before hiring them. Instead they interview people and hire them based upon whether or not they are suited to the job, which can at times differ radically to traditional library practises. Considering the competitive nature of librarianship at present and the rising costs of University fees it is always reassuring to know that there will be further opportunities for work beyond our traineeships even if we cannot go forward with a library course at present. Or indeed, if we decide to pursue one part time or even distance-based. It is a further comfort to see that, with constant threats of library closures, with a little innovation even new libraries can still thrive.
Thanks again to Linda and Richard for arranging such a great visit for us!

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