I can’t stress enough what a huge achievement opening a major new library, and one with an emphasis on serving children and young people, is for our city. This is an act demonstrating belief in the future, and determination to build the best for our children in the face of thirteen long years of austerity. In the light of the news that was to follow, it can be seen as a striking act of defiance from a proud city, one that refuses to be written off.
The opening of the new Central Library fulfils the pledge Nottingham made in its successful 2015 bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature. That this final pledge took so long to fulfil is hardly a failing in the face of a pandemic and horrendous cuts. We knew, when we wrote the bid, that a new city library was an enormous ask. When – to our surprise and delight – our bid was successful, I was told that what had swung it for us was the city’s ambition. Not that Nottingham City of Literature claims credit for the building of the library, which belongs to everybody who backed it, and especially director of Libraries and Leisure, Nigel Hawkins. But putting the library in our UNESCO bid undoubtedly made the project hard to back away from and added fire to our bellies.
Nigel gave me a tour of the new library three months ago, but this week it was even more of a joy to see the place fully kitted out and buzzing with people before the speeches began. There are numerous break-out spaces, loads of computers and places to work, combined with an excellent local studies section and lovely areas for children, like the one I snapped below. Nigel led off the speeches and was followed by Council leader David Mellen who made clear what a star the director had been in getting the project ‘over the line’.
The building is complete inside and, next year, outside will be transformed. Three thousand people, David Mellen told us, responded to the consultation and the majority wanted more green space. The library will be set in a park, with the longest bench in the world. It has 720 photovoltaic cells on the roof and 781 electric charging points in its car park, the most anywhere in the UK, demonstrating Nottingham’s commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2028. Earlier in the day, David, a former Primary School headteacher, read the first story to children in the library, ‘an absolute privilege’. This was, I’m pretty sure, his favourite part of the day.
David was followed by our celebrity guest, Dolly Parton (only on video, sadly) congratulating us on achieving this milestone and thanking everybody involved with bring her Imagination library to children in Nottingham. As Nottingham City of Literature Chair Patrick Limb observed, for someone so associated with 9 to 5, it was good to see her doing overtime after 7pm! Councillor Pavlos Kotsonis, the portfolio holder eloquently expanded on the role of the new library and the importance of libraries to our culture.
To conclude, Hannah Trevarthen, Nottingham City of Literature’s director, told us that she was the daughter of a librarian and talked about how libraries can help young people find their place in the world, building a new generation of writers and readers. Certainly, for me and many writers I know, growing up in a house with few books, the local library was a window into another world and, without the crucial libraries in my life (West Kirby, Colne and Burnley, as well as several in Nottingham) I very much doubt that I would have become an author.
The day after the library opening, the city council, which has lost £100 million of funding a year since 2013, while demand for its services soared, declared itself effectively bankrupt. The only surprise about this was that it happened so soon after the library opening. This dismal news does, I would argue, reinforce the need to celebrate our new library. Of course, if government commissioners take over, we may have to fight to keep it open, just as we fought to protect other libraries threatened with closure. But this is a city willing to fight.
I’m proud to live in a city where the moral argument caps the financial one, where we open libraries rather than close them, where building a better world with words includes a magnificent new, green building, with a great children’s library at the heart of it. If you’ve not been to the new library yet, do get yourself down there. If you’ve not joined a library, do it today – either at the new Central Library or your local one. Everyone who has been part of the Nottingham City of Literature team over the last nine and a half years is proud to have been part of the birth of our new library. Whatever the future holds, we hope to see you in there.