Thanks to artist Lucy Harrison for this guest post about the creative project she was recently involved in at Archway Library.
Between September 2012 and January 2013 I was ‘hosted’ by Archway Library in north London. I’m an artist and often work on projects in specific locations, usually involving people who live or work there, and producing various outcomes like books, events, audio and video. This was a project organised by Islington Council and managed by an arts organisation called Air Studio, for which 5 artists, poets and dancers were placed with different organisations: a charity shop, a carers’ centre, a mothers’ group and a mental health charity. The arrangement was that we would regularly spend time in our host organisation and have a public outcome at the end. We also met as a group every few weeks to discuss how our projects were going.
I’ve always been interested in libraries and have worked on a few other projects involving them. In 2003 I collected all the notes made in margins of books in an art college library, and made them into a new book. I also worked on a project in Sunderland where I re-categorised a section of the library according to emotions, events and characteristics mentioned in the blurb on the back. And I used to have a studio above Stoke Newington library, next door to the head librarian.
The library manager at Archway was helpful and enthusiastic from the first time we met. He is very focussed on the local community and always willing to try out new ideas. So I started going there on Wednesdays and began by observing what happened around me. One of the first things I noticed was how many people went in for things other than books- people were booking time on the computers to use the internet or type essays, they were coming in for children’s activities, or to read newspapers. There is a large Irish community in Archway and the Irish newspapers are kept behind the desk for people to request, which they do every day. Some people seemed to spend long periods of time there, perhaps to keep warm or to have some company. The staff were usually very busy, often too busy for me to find time to talk to them properly.
I decided to install a post box in the library, and started to leave notes and questions around the place for people to fill in and leave for me. It was a way of having a presence in the library during the rest of the week when I wasn’t in the building. The most popular question I left was simply ‘What is a Library?’ to which I had handfuls of answers every time I went back to check.
The answers ranged from “a community centre that’s open to all” “Somewhere warm and free” to “a galaxy of things we can learn from. It’s an encyclopaedia with different branches, different leaves, different topics” and “Any place where you can forget your daily problems and feel the pleasure of letters flying around you”.
In my first week I also went to the Islington Local History Centre at Finsbury Library, and looked at the material they had related to Archway Library. They had a whole box of leaflets, photographs and press cuttings, dating back many years but mostly from the last few decades. I discovered that the original library had been in a different building across the road, and had opened in 1946 to the delight of the local people who had been ‘starved of books’ during the war.
I found out that the building the library is now in opened in 1980, and found a large number of highly saturated old colour photographs which were taken as the library was being moved into the new building. It was strange to see the same wood and orange metal shelves that I had become familiar with, but brand new and empty with boxes of books strewn around the floor. The photos showed library staff unpacking the boxes and stacking the books, while others showed the old building being emptied. I also found out that the children’s library, which is through a partition from the main library, opened in January 1983, meaning that the 30th anniversary would be during my project.
I ordered some scans of the photos and when I received them I brought them into Archway library to show the manager. He hadn’t worked there then but was also fascinated by them, and started to give me contact details for some of the library staff who worked there in 1980. I was surprised that he was able to put me in contact with 4 or 5 people who still worked for Islington Libraries after all this time. They all worked at different branches now, apart from one member of staff at Archway who I suddenly realised was in one of the photographs, as a teenage girl.
I started to arrange to meet them, and recorded interviews with them while showing them the photographs. Certain things cropped up in all the interviews: how excited they were to move in to the building, the feeling of hope for what they could do there, how much they all loved working there and how well they all got on. It seemed that the thought of leaving the library service had never occurred to any of them. They all still met up with each other and with a few others who had retired. There were some really funny parts to some of the interviews too- remembering being made to carry out make-up demonstrations in the teenage library, a person who left glittery shoes on the shelves, carrying all the books across the underpass from the old building.
The interviews made me see the building in a new light, and I transcribed them all and edited them into one narrative, which went around the building from the entrance. I asked one of the librarians if she would mind being recorded reading it out as an audio tour, which she said yes to straight away. Some people have said that they would have liked to have heard the different voices, but I wanted it to be read out more formally, and liked the idea that it was all of the librarians speaking with one voice, as if they had become one person.
As well as the audio tour, I designed two newspapers and had 100 copies of each one printed; I liked the format of the newspaper as it is so well used in this building. The first was using the librarians’ text telling the story of moving into the new building, along with the old photographs, so that people could see them while looking at the library as it is now. The other one used the texts that people had left in the post box, along with photographs that I’d taken of some of the things library users had been reading. We had a launch evening and a lot of the librarians came along. I gave a short introduction and was surprised to find I had a lump in my throat when I said how important the library was for Archway.
The project was fairly short and I had so many other ideas I would have liked to have carried out, but I finished the project with very good memories of Archway Library, and I am glad that I had the insight into the story of how it opened.
Lucy Harrison was hosted by Archway Library as part of A Million Minutes, an Islington Council project supported by Arts Council England. It was produced by AIR, a project studio at Central Saint Martins College of Art.
The audio tour is available on MP3 players at Archway Library, and free copies of the newspaper are available until they run out.
PDFs of the newspapers can be downloaded from the following links and paper copies can be ordered for £2.