John Sutherland: Stairway to book heaven

January 13, 2006

The wilkins library, University College London The refurbished library is officially reopened on January 19

Bloomsbury is to libraries what Oxford Street is to department stores or Soho to knocking shops. In WC1, as the joke goes, they put library cards in public phone boxes.

The grandest of Bloomsbury's book repositories are the British Library (likened, unfairly, by Prince Charles to the Lubyanka) and Senate House (likened, unfairly, by Simon Jenkins to Hitler's bunker). The most lavishly specialist library is the Wellcome (history of medicine) in its glisteningly refurbished site on Euston Road. The quirkiest are the little Dr Williams Library, nestled in Gordon Square, and the Swedenborgian Library by Bloomsbury Square.

There are at least a dozen others including (least accessible of all) the MI5 library in its mysterious, entranceless block on Bloomsbury Way.

University College London's library is, I would hazard, the cosiest - although it, too, has its grand, specialist, quirky and mysterious aspects.

When the site was first designed by William Wilkins (think National Gallery), the aim was to have a huge square, with a grand library as one wing, to match the King's Library, in the nearby British Museum. The university was the vision of bookmen. Books, along with political reform and education for all, irrespective of creed or class, were at the heart of its democratic vision.

All too typically, Wilkins's design was only half-completed and it was forced to cram in with what became University College School. It is still accommodated in what were, originally, classrooms for clever Victorian school kids.

The Luftwaffe scored a double hit on the library, flattening the rotunda and destroying a bulk of the books not removed, with the objects of art, for safety. God as well as Goering, it seemed, wanted to punish the Godless Place in Gower Street.

The library survived the war in shabby grandeur, adorned by its Flaxman panels. The magnificent central statue of St Michael in epic conflict with Satan returned from exile in the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1994.

In the 1990s - a bad decade for libraries - grand projects were broached.

Why not purchase Senate House Library, cut adrift after defederalisation? Why, in a square mile containing a thousand times more books than people, did UCL need its own library?

When University College Hospital moved out of the "cruciform" building on Gower Street, endowed by Maple's store, and designed, wags said, by Charles Addams, it was thought the site might be adapted. Alas, the floors were inadequate. Books, the surveyors gloomily reported, weigh more than dead bodies. Addams would have chortled.

It seemed, about ten years ago, that the UCL library might decline into an embarrassing, dusty book morgue. But instead, under provost Malcolm Grant's "corporate identity" vision, it is to be showcased. Like the auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham, it is not a dead thing - it symbolises something vital.

Some £2 million has been spent on the first phase of the refurbishment. The library now has a majestic new staircase, exhibition spaces, state-of-the-art computer gadgetry. The beautiful Flaxman panels (cleaned some three years ago) gleam with their original Colgate whiteness.

The strength of the Wilkins library has always been its organic relationship with the UCL community. Students can get what they want without leaving the main building.

The library has been handsomely but tactfully renovated. It's a machine that has the charm of an antique, but like a fine grandfather clock, it works as well as its digital rivals.

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe professor emeritus at University College London.

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