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'Opening up' - how palaces for the people can create a more equal society

Weston Library, Oxford (Bodleian Libraries) - the colonnade on Broad Street, with public cafe tables, facing the Clarendon Building and the Sheldonian Theatre

Future Cities Forum's 'Cultural Cities' was hosted by the Chief Librarian of the Bodleian Libraries, Richard Ovenden, at the Weston Library on Oxford's Broad Street, to discuss the recovery of the cultural sector, for our first physical forum since the start of the pandemic. The forum had an introductory address by Lord Mendoza, Commissioner for Cultural Recovery at the DCMS.

The Weston Library (as the 'New Bodleian') was built in the 1930s and designed by the architect Giles Gilbert Scott. He is chiefly remembered for his design for the red telephone box, Liverpool's Anglican cathedral, and London's most famous power stations at Bankside (now Tate Modern) and Battersea. The library building was re-designed by Wilkinson Eyre and opened in 2015 with new spaces for the public to enjoy business and social events and exhibitions, as well as to showcase the treasures of the Bodleian Libraries' special collections: archives, manuscripts, rare books, maps, printed ephemera and other specialist material.

According to Jim Eyre of Wilkinson Eyre, Scott's New Bodleian was never designed as a public building, but essentially as a storage facility. In 2010 the University opened a new storage base at South Marston near Swindon and this freed up room in Broad Street. Wilkinson Eyre celebrated the building's heritage by designing voids up through the building that frame the central book stack volume to bring in controlled daylight. The architects also created a spectacular reading room at roof level.

Richard Ovenden OBE FSA FRSA is a British librarian and author, currently serving as Bodley's Librarian in the University of Oxford having been appointed in 2014. He also serves as the Director of the Bodleian Library's Centre for the Study of the Book and holds a Professional Fellowship at Balliol College. Richard has written extensively on professional concerns of library and information management. He has written a history of the deliberate destruction of knowledge, 'Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attacks.'

Addressing our hybrid physical and digital forum of council chief executives, museum leaders, art historians, playhouse directors, architects, festival leaders and real estate developers, Richard told the story of how the library was redeveloped for city visitors and Oxford's communities. He described how he had heard members of the public talking - under the misapprehension - that the library was Oxford's police headquarters or the city's telephone exchange. It was clear at this point to him that the city needed to understand exactly what it stood for and how it could be used by the public:

'Before we could do this the fire service had to make it safe and and the building had to be preserved to protect what is one of the world's greatest scientific repositories and also for continuing research purposes. The building was part of the Broad Street Plan of 2004 which had benefitted form the appointment of renowned landscape and urban designer Kim Wilkie, and which aimed to revive the street as a social convening space for the city.

'Architect Jim Eyre (of Wilkinson Eyre) developed the building, turning the wall that faces Broad Street into a colonnaded space where today people can gather or sit at tables opposite the Sheldonian Theatre. He also determined that this should open into a big space inside the building where the public could meet free of charge, engage with the library treasures or simply have a coffee. It acts as an intellectual and social space where programmes are being developed not just for students but for social and business groups. The Oxford Business Forum networks here, people gather in the public space after concerts and wedding breakfasts can be held. It is one of the few big spaces in the city where 400 people can assemble with a glass in their hands and talk to each other.

'I remember the day the renovated library building opened - we had 14,000 visitors over two days. There was one person who came along who had never been in a university building before. It was all worthwhile. It made me think of Eric Klinenberg's book, 'Palaces for the People' which brought forward the notion that libraries are social infrastructure and we hope at the Weston Library that we have provided that same infrastructure.'

Read more of our forthcoming blogs and reports - with input from the British Library's Jamie Andrews, Warrington Council's Professor Steve Broomhead and leading architects on the changing nature of libraries in the community post pandemic and how the DCMS has been funding the return of culture to our cities.

Future Cities Forum would like to thank Richard Ovenden for the opportunity to hold our event in such historic and finely renovated surroundings.


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