In my experience libraries are fusty places with fierce ladies telling you to be quiet, or big silent tombs where grim students bury their heads in books for hours on end. Many public libraries in Britain have been closed and others seem to be underfunded, under-heated, empty and sad.
Nothing in my memory prepared me for Liverpool's Central Library which can be described as a phenomenon. When I was a student here this neo-classical building was an empty shell but in the interim the Liverpool Council have invested £50 million pounds into making it a modern wonder - with a neo-classical façade. How the council pay for its upkeep when central government have decimated their budget by over 75% is a mystery.
I'm writing this on the fourth floor of the library, where a massive word on the wall - "Meet" - is written in huge one metre high letters. To one side are three meeting rooms and last night they were all joined into one space where about 50 people came to listen to a talk about black people who had fought in World War One and experienced terrible racism when they got home to Liverpool. A local history group were launching a website made up of letters written by "black ex-servicemen, seamen and factory workers stranded or left destitute in Liverpool after the First World War."
Now it's 4pm and a private French teacher is setting up class on the top floor. "I couldn't get one of the meeting rooms" she tells me, "so I have to teach here, in the hall." Fair enough. I can hear her talking to a big scouse fella in French and I can understand some of what he says, for example "je déteste Manchester."
About an hour ago crowds of teenagers were being disgorged from the lifts, milling around in the corridor, giggling like stoners and piling through the big glass doors onto the terrace - where you can get a commanding view of St George's Hall and the city centre.
The teenagers spend hours on the terrace, huddling in conspiratorial groups, laughing hysterically, tapping their smartphones and jumping about. When clouds of smoke rise from their midst a voice comes over the tannoy telling them that smoking isn't allowed. It's strange to think that tomorrow they will tell their peers that they had a great time "in the library".
Earlier in the day, harried mothers, grandparents and the odd Daddy show up with push chairs and scores of little children - who love pushing the big button that opens the door to the rooftop terrace. This place is incredibly kiddie-friendly: there is a vast kindergarten space under the main reading room where scores of kids mill around a minimalistic exhibition by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (it was curated and sent over by The Pompidou Centre in Paris).
What I love about this place is that there are no officious library workers telling you to be quiet or get out. In fact the staff are friendly and helpful. I'm impressed that the tough-looking security men tolerate the hordes of teenagers, but presumably the grungy looking kids have never done any damage. They're just looking for a nice space where they can unwind, spend time together, stay warm and not spend money.
Liverpool's Central Library is a temple to tolerance and community and everyone is welcome.
Above all this hubbub is a rounded dome, shaped like a half-egg, crafted from wood and glass. It's a superb piece of architecture, engineering and craftsmanship that looks like a mini-version of the Reichstag's iconic dome. Not only does it look fantastic, but it lets light into the atrium which reaches down to the ground floor. This image does justice to it.
You can see a longer verson of this article on my personal blog, including the political background.