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Monday, 24 January 2011

This summary of the case for the retention of the Calderdale Central Library is based on a presentation by Dr John Hargreaves, Chair of Halifax Civic Trust to the Halifax Urban Renaissance Town Team Meeting on 13 January 2011 at the Shay Stadium:

Why should the Calderdale Central Library be retained on its existing site?

1.             It should be retained because the existing building was purpose built to a high specification and provides exceptional facilities for community use by Calderdale residents and visitors in a conveniently accessible location. The new building was a distinct improvement on the facilities available at the previous site, Belle Vue Mansion, both with respect to standards of conservation of the archive and library collections, conforming to stringent national BS5454 standards and also in terms of enhanced public access and usage. I recall researching local newspapers for my MA and PhD theses in a dingy back room at Belle Vue with a solitary microfilm reader where access was severely constrained by coat hooks and stacks of storage boxes. However, it must be remembered that the sale of Belle Vue Mansion and grounds facilitated the creation of the new facility and any loss or diminution of the facility at Northgate effectively nullifies both that legacy and its promise of improved facilities for future generations. When I wrote my history of Halifax, I interviewed at length one of the moving spirits behind the creation of a new Calderdale Central Library, the late Councillor Wilfred Sharp, a Hipperholme market gardener, who loved books and recognised the value for the whole community of a high quality centralised library resource. The resulting new purpose-built combined archive, library and meeting room facility was the product of the vision of the Council, its officers and the historical strength of public support for libraries in Calderdale. It ranks as one of the most visionary and enduring achievements of Calderdale MBC in the whole of its existence. Indeed, to this day, it is the only purpose-built combined archive and library facility in West Yorkshire. It is vastly superior to facilities in larger cities such as Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield and at both its opening and tenth anniversary celebrations the facility was acclaimed by Dame Antonia Fraser, one of the leading literary figures of our time, who performed the opening ceremony. If demolished or truncated it would be the only recorded instance nationwide of the demolition or dismantling of purpose-built facilities designed to this standard. Moreover, expert investigation has demonstrated that it would be prohibitively expensive for a developer to replicate the full range of facilities currently available here on any other site or even re-model the existing site to preserve the Archive storage facilities, in view not only of construction costs and space considerations but also of costs arising from the logistics of moving resources into approved storage during the process of demolition and reconstruction. The construction costs in the 1980s amounted to £2.4m equivalent to estimated rebuilding costs to the same specification of 9.3m in 2009, whilst any necessary refurbishment (no matter how serious) would cost only a very small fraction of total rebuilding costs to the same specification.

2.            It should be retained because of the durability and quality of the original construction both internally and externally. In terms of durability the building has probably the most secure storage of any publicly owned building in Calderdale: hence its usefulness for the storing of postal ballot boxes at election times. It has high-security, blast-proofed, fire-proofed, flood-proofed strong rooms, which offer secure storage for irreplaceable and sensitive documents. Given that parts of Yorkshire have experienced severe damage and destruction through flooding and civil disturbance in recent years these features are not to be dismissed lightly. The exterior ashlar stone facing is from the acclaimed Woodkirk quarries and is exactly the same source and quality of stone used to create the perimeter steps and paving at the Lloyds/HBOS building. Indeed the angular modernity of the Library building complements that of the Lloyds Banking Group building at Wards End but its scale and design is also entirely sympathetic and proportionate to the fine existing nineteenth century buildings on Northgate, including the refurbished Victorian shop fronts and the impressive former Crossley carpet warehouses. The building also complements the adjacent Woolshops development, civic offices and bus station. The interior fittings are robust and functional - many have commented on the generous spacing of the staircase steps and the building, despite the steep gradation of the site was designed to meet disabled access criteria, but there are also decorative interior features such as the customised and now historic Crossley-woven carpets which add distinction to the facilities. Above all the interior with its modular demountable partitions has proved eminently adaptable to changing needs, for example, the demand for increased ICT provision. The Library facility even included a highly visible and accessible tourist and public information point at one phase in its evolution, intended to help both residents and visitors to explore the town‘s amazing heritage.

3.            It should be retained because of its sustainability as a public utility on a council owned site, where it is currently not susceptible to inflationary rent rises and servicing overheads deriving from commercial pressures. A redesigned facility within a commercial development would be much more vulnerable to such economic vicissitudes or even the disastrous sudden collapse of the business host.
4.            It should be retained because its functions are designed to promote lifelong learning. Where else in Calderdale is such a high degree of self-motivated, auto-didactic learning evidenced? The community in Calderdale has arguably exceptional cultural and educational needs for lifelong learning on account of its historic preference for selective secondary education in Halifax itself, its ethnically diverse communities and its high demographic age profile, together with its unfortunate lack of an institution of higher education and the primary focus of its FE institution on vocational education. The library facilitates through its extensive accommodation the provision of imaginative and stimulating activities ranging from the popular pre-school Busy Babies to the University of the Third Age for the retired. One ninety-year-old member of a local history class I am currently teaching for the WEA travelled every Thursday evening during the recent severe weather from Mytholm, beyond Hebden Bridge, to Calderdale Central Library returning by bus on her own at 9.10 p.m. on each occasion. Both she and another recent recruit to the group who is severely physically handicapped have benefited from the opportunity provided by the Library facilities to participate in a voluntary educational experience. Recently, I encountered a group from Age Concern meeting informally at the Library to discuss how to cope with the current severe winter weather. Moreover, large numbers of local students in primary, secondary, tertiary and higher education value the use of these facilities for homework, revision and further study, including many students from culturally deprived and disadvantaged households. Job seekers search the internet at times when other facilities are unavailable and staff in the reference library with whom I spoke recalled offering encouragement and practical help when invited. Even mature students researching at PhD level find the facilities of the Local Studies and Archives invaluable - I am co-supervising one of three University of Huddersfield doctoral students researching local cricket history in Calderdale. There is nowhere else in the world, except the island of Barbados, where there is such intensive study of cricket history in one locality. Indeed, the basement rooms of the Library host some of the displays created by the HLF funded Cricketing Heritage Project revealing the extent of the community interest. More generally, by providing computers and access to the internet, the Library helps to bridge the digital divide and provide the information literacy skills necessary for learning, living and work.

5.            It should be retained because the combined facilities are clearly valued by all sections of the community. Over 16,000 people from across Calderdale supported the massive DBOL petition in 2009 and thousands more a parallel petition organised by the Calderdale Pensioners‘ Association. We were encouraged not only by the volume but also by the range of support from all the diverse communities of Calderdale, including thousands of local residents, library and archive users, former senior officers in both the library and archive services, technical experts who had been involved in the design and construction of the building, trade unionists, members of all the main political parties, members of churches, mosques and voluntary organisations. These included the Calderdale Pensioners’ Association, the Halifax Civic Trust, the Halifax Borough Market Tenants’ Association, the Halifax Scientific Society, the Halifax University of the Third Age, the Halifax Probus Club, the Soroptimist International of Halifax and the Workers’ Educational Association. The campaign also received support from many distinguished academics, eminent figures from the world of culture and the arts, representatives of business and commerce and Halifax’s MP Linda Riordan who presented our petition to Downing Street and then to Parliament. Not since the Chartist Movement of the early Victorian era has Halifax engaged in such a high profile petitioning of Westminster. Moreover CMBC’s own extensive three consultations organised entirely on their own terms revealed overwhelming public support for retention of the facilities on the existing site and to its great credit CMBC then voted unanimously to retain the linked archive, library and meeting room facilities on the existing site, reversing a previous council decision taken in haste without adequate consultation. Moreover since this decision was taken use of the library and archives facilities has continued to grow, bucking trends in some other places. Around 370,000 visit’s a year are made by people to use library services at the Central Library with up to a further 15,000 visits being made to attend events organised by a range of organisations and community groups. Indeed the profile of the library and archives services was raised as a result of the DBOL campaign and it is likely that any proposal to demolish or part demolish the facilities will be vigorously resisted.

6. It should be retained because it contributes a cultural asset and provides comfortable, neutral, safe and supervised inner urban community space where most publicly accessible space is either dedicated to retail, associated with a high entry tariff, or has associations with alcohol or gambling which diminishes its appeal to some sections of the community, for example the very young or members of ethnic minority communities. It is also a hub for cultural networking throughout Calderdale both informally and through the range of activities which it hosts in its meeting rooms and through the communications network with branch libraries dependent on the support services provided by the central library team.

7.  It should be retained because the building contains a vast treasure trove of archival and library deposits, many the gift of local residents, and is widely regarded (locally, regionally and it would not be an exaggeration to say globally) as a much valued and indeed indispensable cultural resource. The Calderdale District Archives includes rare documents dating from the twelfth century to the twenty-first century, including the pattern book of Samuel Hill, a worsted weaver of Kebroyd, the diaries of Cornelius Ashworth, an eighteenth-century weaver from Wheatley which illustrates the growth of the textile industry in Calderdale before the factory age, when the Piece Hall was the marketing centre for the Calder Valley and the Anne Lister diary, which is currently under consideration for listing as an archive of national significance, and the papers of Halifax’s most celebrated novelist, Phyllis Bentley, to cite just a few examples. They require and now receive high quality conservation in some 3 km of quality storage shelving units plus additional capacity for future expansion, together with complementary facilities such as the Local Studies, Reference and Meeting Rooms facilities to encourage maximum community use. It is salutary to note that Halifax has previously lost two valuable resources - its parochial library which it allowed to be moved from the Minster to the University of York in 1957, where it is now a prized asset. Had it been retained in its original location it might now have been as significant to Halifax as the chained library at Hereford Cathedral. Then in 1962 Halifax lost the library of its premier intellectual society the library of the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society which was sadly dispersed. Today the unique libraries of the Halifax Scientific Society and the Halifax Antiquarian Society are housed in excellent conditions at the Calderdale Central Library together with the Library’s own Special Collection of finely bound books by the renowned eighteenth-century bookbinder Edwards of Halifax with their innovatory laminated vellum bindings and artistic fore-edgings and colourful marble-grained end papers. The equally remarkable Horsfall Turner collection now numbering 7,500 items is also housed here and the popular cheaper editions of books pioneered by William Milner in Halifax for a readership from a more economically limited background, together with Phyllis Bentley‘s writing desk and other memorabilia.

8.             It should be retained because it helps to preserve the documentation as yet only partially explored which underpins Halifax’s unique identity as a place and helps to connect heritage and learning with the town’s economic future. It has already been and will continue to be a springboard for both professionals and volunteers interested in promoting Halifax as a uniquely attractive historic town. Let us not forget that this kind of thinking shaped the development of Woolshops incorporating significant historic features and more recently the restoration of Somerset House. Indeed, expert opinion has been challenging the town to engage in marketing its unique history for years and, of course, the Piece Hall project has now given a greater sense of urgency to the realisation of this aim. Moreover, the retention of such a popular landmark feature and valued community resource as Calderdale Central Library, Archives and Meeting Rooms, at the heart of the town centre ought also to be appreciated as a significant contributor to Halifax’s economic vibrancy, not only because the buildings and their contents have the potential to link heritage with economic regeneration, but also because many of the 400,000 or so visitors to the library and archives, may combine their visits to the Library with the patronage of retail or catering outlets in the town centre. Furthermore, Calderdale Central Library, Archives and Meeting Rooms provide a resource which offers similar benefits for the whole of Calderdale, providing a networking hub and reinforcing the historical identity of the sub-region. DBOL recognised in 2009 that the people of Calderdale would live to regret the potential loss of one of the finest facilities of its kind anywhere outside the largest of cities and the people demonstrated their support in huge numbers for its retention . Their unmistakable will to see it continue to serve the communities of Calderdale must be respected by the political decision makers.


See also

HebWeb News Jan 2011 - Don't Bulldoze Central Library

HebWeb News 2009 - Calderdale Central Library and Archive

Hebweb Forum - Demolition of Central Library and Archives building in Halifax (March-April 2009)

Don't Bulldoze our Library

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