Admittedly I had never heard of Philip Larkin when I mentioned to a colleague that I was soon to be visiting the University of Hull’s redevelopment of the Brynmor Jones Library so his reply, “you’re off to Larkin land”, initially had me scratching my head. However, I was soon to discover the high esteem Philip Larkin is held in, both as a renowned English poet of modern times and as the highly respected Librarian (a post he held for 30 years), at The University of Hull. Upon our arrival at Hull train station we were greeted by the bronze statue of Larkin proudly welcoming us to ‘Larkin land’.
I was joined on this trip by two of our Main Library Redevelopment Champions, Amar Nazir (Academic Engagement Librarian) and Zoe Makin (Strategic Project Officer), alongside Penny Hicks (Head of Strategic Marketing and Communications) from the Library Leadership Team with the mission of finding out as much about the Brynmor Jones Library redevelopment as possible. We arrived at the University in warm and bright weather. The Venn Building, a Grade II listed Neo-Georgian building, dominates the front of the campus with its grandness and impressive design. Large hoardings promoted 2017 as the year Hull will be in the national spotlight as City of Culture and also hid a range of ongoing campus building projects.
We arrived at the Brynmor Jones Library and were taken to meet Richard Heseltine (Librarian, The University of Hull) and Judy Wolff (former Library Redevelopment Project Manager, The University of Hull) in Richard’s office. As our time was limited, we began our tour of the Library straight away and Richard proudly walked us through the Library’s exhibition space and art gallery. Home to items from the University’s art collection and other temporary exhibits, the space has proved to be very popular. One of the drivers for such a high quality gallery (the facility conforms to national gallery standards) is the Library’s role in the City of Culture celebrations when a number of events are scheduled to take place in the space.
As we walked through the library, I noticed the amount of angles and clean lines throughout the interior; the black-framed glass doors and partitions providing detail and depth in the same manner that shōji doors produce in traditional Japanese houses. The library is similar to our own Main Library in so much as it is formed from the joining together of two very different buildings, from different periods (an Art Deco styled block and a brutalist 1969 extension). Creating consistency across two very different architectural standings, whilst preserving original characteristics and bringing tired facilities up to modern standards is always a difficult task (one which we are working on relentlessly in our own redevelopment).
The newly created staircase and central atrium joins the two sides of the Library together perfectly, although the renovation of the Art Deco staircase outside Richard’s office is equally as impressive. This application of consistent style throughout two completely different buildings impressed me – no matter where you were, you knew you were in the Library. A limited amount of striking colour was used throughout the refurbishment; against the base palette of greys, charcoals and off-white, the mustard tone accentuated both obvious and less noticeable areas of the building, bringing depth and interest throughout.
The building had been given a new lease of life and the library’s aim to create a destination on campus had been achieved. I have referred to the ‘consistency’ of the finished design but the distinct character of the each part of the library is brought to life beautifully with use of original features and new reinterpretations including recreated light shades (copying the 1959 originals), an original book case, the transition from the Art Deco stair case into the Brutalist space and the use of exposed brick work in the central atrium. The Brynmor Jones Library has complete clarity; the variety of texture, colour, tradition and progress provides multiple perspectives within an interpretation of what a modern library should be and with this, creates a multi-layered experience for its users.
We moved up through the 1969 Brutalist part of the building, the tower block, one of the highest points in the city. This area of the library is where we started to see a much larger collection of book stock along with the striking Rare Books area on the 7th floor, housed in an environmentally controlled glass room in the middle of the space. Richard explained that they wanted to make visible some areas of the Library that have previously been hidden away. A common term used to describe the shift currently taking place in libraries is ‘people first, books second’, but Richard and his team’s aim to bring to the fore some of the previously hidden aspects of their Library contradict this ideology. In my view, modern libraries are transcending any notion of segregation; book machines are viewable, special collections are accessible, the library welcomes the user in as a study space away from the lecture theatre, a home on campus away from halls and a social space amidst many others. Customer service staff are not separated by large desks and are mobile, people can choose where to discover, learn and share in a manner that suits them.
It wouldn’t be right to conclude our visit without sharing the fantastic 7th floor ‘Observatory’. This large, flexible, communal study space supports library users with a range of furniture, moveable whiteboards and places for discussion. The views are fantastic, allowing uses to see as far as the KC Football Stadium, the Humber Bridge, Beverly Minster and the Hull Docks. Richard stated that their aim was to create a ‘grown up library’ and not a playground – they have done this without question, although the Observatory does feel more like an area of playful discussion, debate and collaboration, but not out of place within the wider context of the redevelopment.
The project hasn’t been without some challenges, all managed very gracefully by the Library team, and they were happy to share lessons learnt. The failure of the first attempt to completely relax the food and drink policy led to a lot of damage to the new furniture, which swiftly received a u-turn of the rules. The design of the café serving area wasn’t efficient in light of changing customer requirements, their expectations of delivery times for coffee and food now benchmarked by multi-national chains. A post-project assessment on wayfinding and signage highlighted that some areas were difficult for users to find (issues that the design team were currently rectifying). This assessment was a part of the overall project plan and is a lesson I believe all similar projects should take forward. We must accept that users will often challenge decisions made by professionals when using a new space, and therefore the design may have to be amended to reflect this, particularly wayfinding.
The decanting of staff out of the building during construction led to some teams feeling quite disconnected with the new library on their return. Other staff who, for the large part, remained in the building (particularly the Customer Service team) had much more ownership of the space as they experienced the redevelopment from start to finish. However, they also had to endure the disruption, noise and dirt that you’d expect from construction taking place in a live building. The team regularly rotated staff around different locations so they didn’t have to endure the clanks, crashes and drilling for too long.
Overall, both the Library and their architects (who I’d met previously) agreed that this was a successful project in most respects. Key to this was the positive relationships, effective lines of communication and detailed planning that were developed and which involved a large number of stakeholders. Richard pointed to the critical role Judy had played in keeping people happy, being the ‘eye on the ground’ throughout and ensuring that people were connected to the redevelopment at all levels. We were very fortunate that Judy was able to take part in the visit, as she had recently retired. I asked her if she had enjoyed the project and she stated that “it was one of the highlights of my career and an area of work I wished I had been involved with earlier”. It seems fitting that the pinnacle and end of Judy’s career in libraries was the redevelopment of the Brynmor Jones Library.
As we ended the visit, Richard explained a little about the refurbishment of his office. The design team and Library continued to showcase the history of the library into the Librarians office; the Bureau, electric fireplace (which still worked) and vast desk (used by Philip Larkin matched the design concept perfectly and looked as if they had never aged. Richard explained that he was also due to retire in April and was delighted that both the redevelopment and the status of the library was in a very good position for him to handed over the reins and allow the Library to enter its next phase. The Library had grown up, but it hadn’t become old – it had been reborn.
Mike Kelly, Library Space Project Manager