In 2015 Our Favourite Places, together with academics at the University of Sheffield, started a conversation to discover how the city's public libraries are used and valued today. Over 200 library users got involved with the Library Stories project, sharing memories, sketches, photos. There were people who fondly recalled being a "library help" in the 1960s; others whose most memorable moments in the library were choosing Sweet Valley High books to take on holiday as pre-teens. Librarians compared the days when they'd check the cleanliness of kids' palms before letting them touch books with today, when babies and toddlers are made to feel a whole lot more welcome and relaxed at story time sessions. Many people wrote to say how invaluable Sheffield's library services are to them in learning English, looking for a free way to entertain their kids, or applying to university. And "my library has given me a lifeline" was a sentiment shared more than a few times.
Documented on the Library Stories website, along with archival photos and treasures and a timeline of the city's library services, these accounts together create a striking record of love, appreciation and support for public libraries in Sheffield. And at the heart of the city and its public library services is Sheffield Central Library.
Designed by City Architect W.G. Davies and opened in 1934, the library building itself is a neoclassical delight. Symbols of nine academic disciplines (literature, music, drama, architecture, painting, sculpture, mathematics, chemistry and astronomy) are carved into the stone around its entrance, and each is represented within – whether it's in the reference library's collections, down in the Library Theatre, or up on third floor in the Graves Gallery. Even at night the Central Library likes to quietly remind passersby that it's always there for them, lighting itself up in purple and blue – a beacon ready to satisfy any quest for knowledge. And it's even more magnificent on the inside, with its marble columns, beautiful oak fittings, striking stairwell, and, of course, all those books.
Perhaps you value the library as a lifeline or a rare free space in the city; perhaps as a historic resource or a fine example of pre-war architecture (if a little overshadowed by its more modern neighbours). Libraries haven’t had it easy in recent years, but the Library Stories project made clear that, in many different ways and to many different people, Sheffield Central Library, like other libraries, is something to be truly treasured.
Check the Central Library's events programme for everything from creative writing workshops to book launches to live screenings of talks from the British Library.
- Words by
- Kathryn Hall
- Images by
- Nigel Barker