Saturday, August 15, 2015

July 22: Barbican Library

On Wednesday, we visited another public library (yay!): the Barbican Library.

The Barbican Library is the largest library in the City of London (the 1.12-square-mile city/district within the metropolis of London that is considered the original part of the city). The library resides in the Barbican Centre. According to its website, the Barbican Centre is "Europe's largest multi-arts and conference venue presenting a diverse range of art, music, theatre, dance, film and creative learning events. It is also home to the London Symphony Orchestra."

According to our tour guides, the library is just a tenant here...not really part of the Centre. This seems to have a mixed result: people coming to another event at the Centre may discover the library as well, and even when the library is closed, customers can still access the automated library return and a couple of the library's computers just outside the door.

There are also opportunities to encounter famous people: we were told that Benedict Cumberbatch was in the building, rehearsing for Hamlet.

But then the library is also tucked away in the complex (and on the complex's website), making it a little hard to find. Also, the library isn't completely closed off. The main floor of the library is really a mezzanine open to one of the Centre entrances downstairs. There was a graduation at the Centre that day, so there were crowds (or what sounded like crowds) of people milling around and talking downstairs, which got distracting at times. But there was also a jazz band playing a little later. I wouldn't mind visiting a library and browsing the stacks or reading with some live jazz playing in the background.

The library has a unique mix of customers. Very few people actually live in the City of London--only about 9,000. But over 330,000 work in the City, and the library caters mostly to those customers (it lends out a lot of nonfiction). The library is working on building its children customer base with lots of programs. In fact, we were only able to peek our heads in the Children's Library because they had a STEM program on that day.

We did sit down at some point to hear from a member of the Children's Library staff about the programs offered there. (They provided refreshments. More cookies! I'm starting to think that all public libraries do this. I must remember this for when I work in one.) The children's library hosts visits from local schools and nurseries for rhyme times, story times, and other programs (the kids can also take out books during these visits). The Children's Library also hosts a summer reading program, reading groups for three age ranges, as well as after school clubs. The library also participates in a Book Start program, similar to Edinburgh Library's, where children receive packets of books at birth and at preschool age. They also have a Reading to Succeed program, where they pair young readers with adult partners to help improve their literacy skills.

Because it is in the middle of an arts center, the library has an extensive arts collection, as well as a music library. I thought it interesting that both public libraries we visited had music libraries. Like the Edinburgh Central library's Music Library, the Barbican Music Library has exhibition space. They had an exhibit on the BBC Music Library when we visited.

The library has an extensive collection of music books, magazines, scores, CDs, and DVDs on topics ranging from playing technique to the latest pop stars. The library boasts a large collection of magazines from musical societies, which they often get for free because the societies see it as an opportunity for free advertising. And the library has a collection, called Unsigned London, of CDs by local artists who have not signed with a label. It also provides practice pianos and listening booths for customers to use.

Like the Edinburgh Central Library, the Barbican charges a fee for customers to "borrow" CDs and DVDs. Unlike Edinburgh, the Barbican doesn't have a Concession level of membership, so everyone pays the same...which is fair, I suppose. I did ask whether customers who couldn't afford the fees would be able to listen or watch an item in the library. Customers may listen to a CD at one of the listening booths for free. However, because of licensing agreements, they are not allowed to watch a DVD in the library for free, as it would be considered a "broadcast" and he library would have to pay a fee. There is an exception for video tutorials: legislation requires that libraries provide educational material for free. Our guides told us that, if there was such legislation for all media, they probably wouldn't be able to afford their collection.

This, and other conversations that day, had me thinking about access--especially as I think about my research into public library services for customers who are homeless or economically disadvantaged. It seems most public libraries in the UK charge fees for access to CDs and DVDs. In addition, many of the children's programs and access to the catalog (at least when accessed from outside the library) are restricted to library members only. Membership is easy to long as you have an address.

The Barbican Library does provide ways around this: children who attend school in the city can apply for membership, and some local shelters, hostels, and community centers will provide letters to vouch for their clients. And anyone can come in and use (most of) the materials and access the catalog and computers in the library for free. Unlike Edinburgh Central Library, the Barbican Library doesn't have different levels of membership, and they don't have any policies for waiving borrowing or late fees. But they don't seem to see this as restricting access to some people. The people I spoke with saw this as providing equal service to everyone--a level playing field. The same rules apply to everyone. Which, I suppose, is the whole idea behind a public library: to provide equal access to the same information and education. Though, when access to certain resources is tied to an address or fees, which not everyone has access to, I don't know how level that is. There's lots to think about here.

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