The Barbican Library
John Lake, Head of Barbican Library, 1995-Present Day
A Library for the Suits

We know from our database that one of our major user groups is people who work in the City – and you can tell because our peak hours are between 12 and 2.30 when they come in on their lunch hour. The City is still a suited up type of place and the library contains quite a lot of suits.

The City types are coming in on their work break, and these days many of them only ever take half an hour, so its ten minutes to get here, ten minutes inside and ten minutes to get back, they get a little impatient, they expect a business like efficient and quick service. They are more likely to be impatient, you can here it in their voice, there’s a sense of ‘come one’.

Something for people on the estate

There are 8,000 residents in the square mile surrounding the Barbican, but a large proportion of them, 75% are members. I think such a high proportion are members because of the proximity of the library.

People come in from all over the country to use the library, primarily because they commute to work in the City, and then come here on their lunch break. We can tell from customers’ post codes that they are coming from places like Essex, Sussex, as well as places like York and Cambridge. One person came from Cardiff to go to the Guildhall SMD on Saturday.

Parents often come to libraries with their young children. However we know that when children reach a certain age they tend to drop-out of libraries. Its difficult in the City because there’s such a small number of teenagers. We’ve tried to form a young adults reading group, we had one person volunteer, but that was it.

We still have a high White British user base in this library. According to the latest statistics, 9% of our customers are Indian – that’s really high – it did surprise me. We have a Bengali community on the East but they tend to use the community library there.

The library’s a safe neutral space – not just a community place – people come here because it’s a change from the work environment – they don’t just come into read a book, CD or periodical – they come into to meet and have a change of environment.

The customers here are on the whole very civil and easy to do deal with and we have a far smaller proportion of customers who are aggressive or verbally abusive compared with any other public library I have worked. That may be because city workers and Barbican residents are generally on higher incomes, well educated, well connected – and consequently less likely to be aggressive.

Floor Walking

Some librarians have done away with a public service counter and do ‘floor walking’. I do like that idea, we recently remodelled the counter but took a fully conscious decision not to go down that route since we felt that it was too big a culture change and that people still wanted to have the option to be served by staff for the issue and discharge of materials. We currently have four counters, some at a lower level, for easier accessibility, with no security barriers to allow a better passage for customers.

Innovative Uses

In the last few months I’ve seen people come in here and use the library for one-to-one training, on the one occasion that I’m thinking of it was definitely some kind of transaction relationship – they were talking about skills – it was a mentoring thing – its not been clear whether they’ve been charging or not, if they were there may be an issue with the fact that they are using a public space for commercial use.

We had a real unfortunate incident – someone with progressive alzheimers defecated in the library and that was cleaned up and sorted out. A few days later we found what we thought was a repeat of that incident, and for a while we had to corner off a part of the library – it turned out that the offending objects were actually raisins – probably the only known case of raisins posing a security threat in a library.

Because the local community is smaller here than the ones surrounding other libraries, you’re not going to get people spending all day here. However you do get people sleeping here from time to time. There is a library regulation which says people shouldn’t sleep, and all I can say is that we do maintain that to a degree.

Occasionally people bring bikes into the library.


We do get complaints about the noise. The Barbican Centre hosts very lively events in the ground floor Foyer area and some uses of the Library do get exercised about that, people have walked out of the library because of it. I don’t want it to be a noise free library, I wouldn’t be entirely happy about that, and we’ve put poetry evenings and other events on because the library should be an energetic community space. However people do want quiet places to read and don’t like having 80 decibels of noise to contend with therefore it is finding the right balance as with all things.

Relationship with the Arts Centre

We are owned by the City of London – we’re like a resident in the Barbican, we’ve got completely different line management, but we try to provide a service which fits in so we provide information. The Barbican Centre engineering section services our needs in terms of essential services, and this is charged to our budget on a proportionate basis..

The Barbican is an International Arts centre whilst we’re a community library service. We know that many people who come to the concert hall don’t visit the library and vice versa, it just doesn’t happen on a regular basis although the architects of the Centre envisaged that this happening.

Wherever possible the Centre tries to programme events outside of our opening hours. We have considered acoustic insulation but it is extremely expensive and a case has still to be justified.
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