Book to the future: A tour of the new York library and archive

17 Oct 2014 @ 5.24 pm
| Environment, History
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Where have all the books gone? The ground floor at York Explore. Photographs: Richard McDougall.   Click to see a bigger image

York central library – or York Explore as we are still getting used to calling it – will not reopen in autumn, as previously expected. We now have to wait till Monday, January 5, 2015 for its doors to reopen.

But the good news is, the wait looks like being worth it.

First though: why the delay?

“The plan was always for the archive to be opened on January 5,” said chief executive of the now mutualised Explore library and archives, Fiona Williams.

“We had hoped to open the ground floor area earlier. But it’s a listed building, and things happen. We were trying to get it open as soon as we could, but that wasn’t possible.”

Unforeseen problems stalled the reopening, including a damp problem under the lending library floor, and significant extra repairs required for the roof.

We went on a nosey round the Museum Street building as renovation and construction work continues. Here’s what we learned.

1. Everything is changing

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The lending library is staying on the ground floor, but pretty much everything else will be different. Even the air will be fresher, thanks to improved ventilation.

The foyer will be one of a number of places where new digital information screens will be installed.

Through the door to your left as you enter the building will no longer be adult fiction, but a quieter space reserved for reference books and information.

2. But some things are staying the same

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The library building, designed by Walter Brierley and built in 1927, is listed. But so too are the parquet floors, and the original wooden shelves and furniture.

To deal with a damp problem, builders from William Birch have had to take up every piece of parquet, mark its position, lay a damp proofing membrane, and replace the pieces in their original positions on top.

In what was the reference section upstairs, the shelves lining the walls will stay. So will about half the original chairs and tables.

What will happen to the rest? “The original listed furniture that we’re unable to re-use will be placed into secure storage in York, while we work together with English Heritage to find a longer term home for it,” said Victoria Hoyle, city archivist.

3. There will be more for young readers

The popular children’s area on the ground floor will return. But there will be a neighbouring section for young adult fiction.

“We were aware that the space before was largely taken over by the under-fives,” said Fiona. “So we’re creating a better area for some of the older children.”

4. And extra space in the café

The refurbished café, which was often full to bursting in the past, will have more seats and extend into the room at the front of the building.

It will follow the model of the popular Rowntree Park reading café.

5. The new library will sell gifts

Library and archive merchandise will go on sale from a small shop on the ground floor.

This will include book-related items, like a Very Hungry Caterpillar soft toys and mugs made by the publisher Penguin.

But it will also sell prints of photographs of old York, and notepads and mugs with York images on them.

Explore will be operating pop-up shops selling these items in the run-up to Christmas, at the council’s West Offices HQ and elsewhere.

6. Golden days lie ahead for the archive

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Outside the developing ‘gold box’ to house the archive. L-R: Victoria Hoyle, city archivist; Fiona Williams, chief executive, Explore; Victoria Pierce, staff director; James Henderson, chair of Explore.   Click to see a bigger image

The York city archive was previously housed in rooms off the Art Gallery. But too few people used it: York came 27th out of 28 cities for the number of visitors to its archives.

With £1.5m of Heritage Lottery funding going into the York: Gateway to History project, that has to change.

The visible sign of this is a big bit of bling on top of the library. A gold box is being created to house the York archives, which are considered the most important outside London.

Coloured gold to symbolise the treasures within, the airtight, condition-controlled steel room can hold 200 cubic metres of records on its electronically operated shelves.

  Opening hours


9am-8pm Monday-Thursday
9am-6pm Friday
9am-5pm Saturday
11am-4pm Sunday


Open 30 hours a week
Time to be divided between
Mon-Fri, Sat & one evening
10 hours to be outside office hours

7. The archive will be easier to access

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The glass door and shelves ready to be assembled inside the new archive. Click to see a bigger image

As you enter the main room on the first floor, to your left you’ll now find a secure glass door.

Through this door – unlocked by a librarian’s electronic fob – is the reading room where you can study York’s centuries-old archive.

As well as priceless historical documents, like the city’s official message of regret at the death of Richard III, the archive is a trove of posters, accounts, images and photographs which chart the development of the city.

Library users will be able to find what they want via a new digital index of what’s in the archive.

Librarians will wheel down these documents from the gold box into the secure reading room on new trolleys.

With four full time archivists and one working part time – a bigger team than before – it will be easier for schools and interest groups to visit and consult the archives.

An archives advisory group, made up of people from oral history groups, family history societies and similar organisations, will advise staff how to make improvements.

8. History buffs will be happy

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The first floor is all about local history. The main room will have extended shelf space, enabling more of the reference books previously locked away in the strong room to be available to browse.

Modern shelving and desks will provide a contrast to the older, darker furniture, and it will be easier to find a power point to plug in your laptop.

A comfy seating area will be created near the entrance, while a giant display screen will be fixed inside one of the original shelving units.

9. There’s a new split-level room

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At the far end of the first floor is a new room housing hi-tech microfilm readers. These allow researchers not only to scour records on microfilm but zoom in and out like you do on an iPad, and digitally clean records before downloading as a PDF or emailing copies to themselves.

There’s also a mezzanine area with desks lining its walls, which can be used by individuals or groups.

Oh, and to add to the comforts, all the loos have been refitted and are much nicer.

10. Payment will be by card

Users will need to buy licence cards to pay for digital copies – either via the library’s machines or their own cameras or smartphones.

These might cost between £5 and £15, with options to buy weekly or even yearly licences too. You can still pay for photocopies per sheet.

11. It will have a ‘long-term legacy’

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“It might have taken a few more months to finish than we hoped,” said Victoria. “But the legacy for the long-term is a library and archive used by everyone.”

Fiona agreed. “People will be amazed when they walk in. It will be a marvellous building for the future and brings the service into the 21st century.”