The Barbican Library
Purpose Built But Not Purpose Designed: The Guts of the Library
Whoever designed this never designed a library.
Alleged quote from an ex-member of staff according to one user, July 2007


This week, after all those weeks of work and a 10-day shutdown, the transformed library reopened. I went along to find out what had changed; and was pleasantly surprised to find, nothing at all. Well, not nothing: the video shelves, which used to clutter the entrance hall, have been shifted about 20 feet so that they clutter up the books section instead. This has the advantage that a large expanse of brown carpet has been opened up, allowing you to appreciate just how much it needs a shampoo.
Robert Hanks, Independent on Sunday, October 19th 2003.


Thanks for the Independent article - I do remember this now - pity the reviewer missed the removal of two 50 ton+ staircases and the addition of a new ceiling above the Library!
John Lake, Current Head of Barbican Library, 2007.


Planned in the 1960s, built in the 1970s and opened in the 1980s, the Barbican Library was never going to be a shimmering beauty of modernism by the time it opened. The time delay of twenty years allowed the library to age before it had even been born.

The flooring of the library is brown, matching the brown tiles of the Barbican Centre on levels one and two. It’s lighting, like that of the Barbican Centre is low level, and not conducive to reading or any serious study of texts. Its shape is defined by several granite columns located around the Centre.

You’d have to look two or three times at pictures of the library when it first opened to notice any major difference in its appearance today. Now twenty-five years old – the inside of the library resonates wit the stylistics of a 1970s episode of Tomorrow’s World.

When the Barbican Library opened it contained two vital design flaws. Originally the lower level of the library, built on the first floor, was connected to the podium floor by a staircase. This staircase, which continues to connect the lower level to the upper level on floor two, continued upwards to the art gallery on the third floor.

Barry Cropper, Head Librarian at the time the library opened, believed the concept that people would flow between functions was a nice one but was never practically realistic. The Centre, the Library, and the Art Gallery all had different opening times and there was no means by which the different spaces could be secured when they weren’t open to the public. As a consequence the non-library portions of the staircase were never used and Barry had it closed off.

Four years ago the upper and lower parts of the staircase were removed, leaving the UK’s first and only castrated library staircase looking a little disconsolate.



The second design flaw, which remains today, is that the library is not sealed off from the rest of the Arts Centre. In the music section there is a banister which protects you from falling down on to the Podium Floor. From the banister you can see people enter the Centre for their concerts and as one librarian recalls a particularly aggressive child doing, spit on people’s heads.

When the hundreds of concert goers gather for a little tipple, they start emitting cubic tones of noisy excitement in anticipation at the film or show they’ve come to see. The noise billows upwards towards the Centre’s ceiling like thick smoke, spilling over the banister on the first floor and working its way into every corner of the second. This noise is a cause of discomfort for many library users.

Mind you, if you’re not in the library to concentrate it’s quite enjoyable to feel part of the Centre’s buzz.


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Barbican Library Videos Barbican Library Links Other Library Links


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Hiding From the Bibliotheque Hunters

The Guts of the Library

Are You Contented?

Plugged Into The Matrix

The Corridor of Light

Thank-You For The Music

International Arts Centre v Community Library

Peter Boxer: Library Reading Groupie

Barry Cropper: Head of Library 1981 to 1995

John Lake: Head of Library 1995 to Present Day

White Hairs' Wonderland