Nearly ten years ago I started working in a university library, in the film and music department. My office was on the lower ground floor, and my desk was by an internal window, which looked out on an internal corridor, which looked out on a tiny external window, which looked out on the bank underneath the bridge that people walked over to get into the library. Which is to say that I had daylight, but it was third-hand and weak. Opposite that bridge was a string of grotty, dingy campus shops. I dreamed of working in a modern library, with big windows and light and air and space.
On Wednesday the Queen opened that modern library, in the same building that I worked in nearly a decade ago. My desk, my office, my internal window and my external window, have long since gone. There’s a glass-walled courtyard, an open-plan entrance, twice as much space for people to study in… it’s been quite a transformation.
This new modern library is part of a development that’s been christened the Forum, because it’s intended to be an open, public space at the centre of the university campus. It’s taken five years or more of planning and construction from the first whispers I heard about building a roof from the library to the shops. Four and a half years ago I helped make a video that kick-started the fundraising campaign that has paid for this development, and on Wednesday I took photographs of it being opened.
I’ve moved job several times since I started working in the library, across several departments. I’ve not worked in the library for four years or more, but I’ve paid close attention to all the building works and developments, kept in touch with people I used to work with. I know that the last two and a half years of serious construction has been difficult for both staff and students at times. But I also know, from the smiles I see on pretty much everyone’s faces inside the Forum, from all the Facebook and Twitter comments we’ve received about it, from all the conversations I’ve had since Wednesday, that people think it’s been worth it.
The Forum is a weird, inside-outside space, part airport terminal, part shopping centre, and part library. Some people have said the shop feels like a duty-free store. There is oodles of technology and commerce stuffed into it, learning labs and an auditorium and coffee shops and banks, but I don’t care about that. I care about the library spaces, the study spaces, the public spaces. Inside 24 hours, students were using it like we’d hoped, plugging in laptops, spreading out books, performing impromptu pieces of theatre, meeting, talking, sharing, planning.
In some ways the Forum signifies the professionalisation of support services at the university, help desks and queuing systems and interview rooms and one-stop-shops. Some people will doubtless see that as a bad thing, as if doing things in a modern way was somehow regressive. Some people think we should have spent all the money on books, or staff, or something else (as if we’ve not invested in those things too; sometimes you need big projects to give the impetus to get little projects done, too). I’ve already taken hundreds of photos of it, given spontaneous tours to postgraduates, been interviewed by students on how I feel about it, had meetings in there, arranged to meet people for lunch in there. Buildings are important. They help people live. Great buildings help people live in a great way. I’m proud to work at a place that recognises this.