‘Never judge a book by its cover’ runs the old saying and if you were to judge simply by appearances you could be forgiven for walking past the drab concrete and brown glass exterior of Central Library in Guildhall Square.
But if you did you would be missing out on one of the most vibrant and important resources in the city.
The traditional view of a library as just a place to borrow books is as dated as the ’70s architecture – libraries have changed and now offer much more than just a good read.
Lindy Elliott is the libraries and archives services manager for Portsmouth City Council and has witnessed this transformation first-hand.
‘I have worked in libraries for 36 years, it seems like quite a long time when you say it like that!’ laughs Lindy. ‘We have seen a real change in how people use libraries. In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s they came to borrow books. These days a lot of people are visiting for other things like tracing their family tree or accessing the IT centre and business unit. We also have a lot of virtual visitors, people who use the library while in their carpet slippers or tucked up in bed. We have magazine downloads and a massive archive online so there’s a lot of research you can do from home and you can also access our catalogue online, request books and then come in and pick them up. It’s a more needs-led service now.’
With a wealth of online services, a bustling IT suite and modern self-service machines, technology is certainly at the forefront of the library’s development.
‘There’s almost an endless supply of people that need to get basic IT skills. It’s a terrible disadvantage not to have basic skills and access and libraries have a big role to play in helping there.’
As part of this role Portsmouth Central Library provides free IT courses and also offers specialised teaching and access for sight-impaired users, yet despite these modern developments history is still a big draw for visitors.
On the second floor is the History Suite dedicated to historical records and documents. Here visitors can delve through the past or discover their family history and the suite is also home to extensive collections of items relating to both Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Michael Gunton is the senior archivist for Portsmouth responsible for access to the archives.
He says: ‘I have been involved with the Conan Doyle collection since it was bequeathed to us by Richard Lanslin Green in 2004,’ says Michael. ‘There are about 40,000 documents, 16,000 books and 3,000 objects. The collection includes film scripts, newspapers, magazines and books in many languages.
‘We have had a team of volunteers since 2005 cataloguing the collection. It’s important to have a precise catalogue of everything. Green didn’t have a catalogue that we were aware of and the collection wasn’t in any order, it was all higgledy piggledy round his home!’
The historical collections draw many visitors but people also drop in for advice they can trust.
‘We like to enable people by giving them information,’ says Lindy. ‘We have a Macmillan Cancer support officer here and Pride in Pompey have a desk on the ground floor giving support to people looking for work. We also run a business unit supporting small and medium sized businesses.
‘Often a library is a nice neutral place for people to come for advice because if they are spotted by their peers it doesn’t say anything about why they are here.’
This ‘safe space’ coupled with endless learning opportunities is what makes Portsmouth Central Library such an important community resource.
‘There’s a sense of community here. For a lot of people it’s somewhere they can gather. We offer a free place to go and there will always need to be places that people can meet.
‘The joy of libraries is that anyone can dip in and out of new things. and there’s a fundamental need for people to explore and be inspired.’
FACES AT THE LIBRARY
Laura is the education and outreach officer for the Conan Doyle Collection, a range of almost 60,000 items that celebrate the life and work of the writer who created iconic sleuth Sherlock Holmes. She promotes the collection and creates engagement opportunities for people to explore the vast range of items.
Laura says: ‘Conan Doyle devised and wrote about the character of Sherlock for the first time in Portsmouth so you could say Sherlock was born here. That’s something people should be proud of and we are looking to make sure that people have as much access as possible to the collection.
‘We have a permanent exhibit in the Portsmouth City Museum with items like Conan Doyle’s glasses, his waistcoat and even his boxing gloves ,but there is so much more to see.
‘We also have lots of Sherlock Holmes items ranging from tea towels to playing cards and film posters.
‘Libraries are important for giving access to collections like this.
‘The collection relies on the work of volunteers to catalogue and record the items.
‘Volunteers are very important to the library. Everyone who volunteers here has a meaningful role and we try to tie up people’s skills with the work they are doing. We even have one volunteer who travels down from Manchester every week just to work on the collection!’
· If you want to volunteer with the Conan Doyle Collection call Laura on (023) 9283 4184.
Danny Wright, 23, from Southsea is a tutor for Pride in Pompey, a council-run training service providing free learning and training opportunities. Pride in Pompey runs a desk on the ground floor of the Central Library.
Danny says: ‘We offer training to people in IT from basic level all the way up to level 2 (GCSE equivalent), we also do NVQs in business administration and customer service.
‘We try to help people up-skill so they can get back into employment. We get a lot of people in to use the service here. They come in to ask for help and we can give them a hand.
‘We have only had a desk in the library since August but we have helped lots of people. We have a lot of success with people coming out the other end into work. People really do appreciate the work we put in, especially with the job club helping them apply for jobs. A lot of people also come in not able to use a computer at all so we do a lot of sessions teaching IT skills. Basic IT skills can be life-changing for people and when they start to learn they realise how important IT is.’
· You can visit Pride of Pompey at the library or call (023) 9229 8288 to have a chat with the team.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Guildhall Square, Portsmouth, PO1 2DX
WHEN: Monday and Friday: 9.30am to 5pm
Tuesday to Thursday: 9.30am to 6pm
Saturday: 10am to 3.30pm
CALL: (023) 9281 9311
· Free membership.
· Borrow up to 30 items at a time including books, music, dvds and language packs to help you learn a new language.
· History Centre where library users can look through historical documents and check their family tree.
· Home to extensive Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle collections.
· Advice available on everything from health and employment to IT skills.
· IT provision available for visually impaired users.