May 25, 2014

Comics Unmasked and Manchester Central Library: Travelling Adventures, part one

Comics Unmasked and Manchester Central Library: Travelling Adventures, part one

Hi, everyone. I’ve been away from the Internet on a holiday that involved almost all of my favourite things: bookish events, libraries and bookshops, several gigs by a band I love, and long walks through some of the prettiest places in the UK. I’m still off work until the 29th, so now I’m at my parents’ recovering from all my travels, hanging out with the cats and dogs, and of course going through all my pictures. I thought I’d share some of them with you, and I’ll start with my trip’s two bookish highlights: the British Library’s Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK exhibition, and the newly reopened Manchester Central Library.

I couldn’t take pictures of the Comics Unmasked exhibition itself, but a visit to the British Library’s website will give you a glimpse of what it’s like. If you find yourself in London between now and August 19, I highly recommend going to see it: it’s a really interesting look at the history of British comics and at the medium’s ties with subversive politics, and it acknowledges both the comics industry’s ongoing diversity problems and the contributions of creators who are not straight white men. It gave me a ton of reading ideas and it made me want to buy the entire contents of the gift shop. Some pictures from my visit:

St Pancras station

Entrance to the British Library
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Comics Unmasked banners outside the British Library

Comics themed shop window

Comics for sale at the British Library’s bookshop
Comics for sale at the British Library’s bookshop.

Table display of children's classics at the British Library bookshop
Also pretty books, because pretty books.

Neil Gaiman and Tori Amos at the British Library
Neil Gaiman and Tori Amos discussing comics, art, life, and how they’ve influenced each other over the years. I worry that if I stare at this picture for too long my head might explode. I’ll probably not get around to writing a proper recap of the event, so here’s one in a single word: ASFFHFHGJK.

Late at the Library event wristband
My Late at the Library event wristband. Also, remind me to tell you all about how on this trip I read several of my favourite books of the year so far.

British Library Late at the Library event

Dave McKean plays the piano at the British Library
Kate Greenaway nominated illustrator and veritable Renaissance man Dave McKean playing the piano. He walked past me earlier in the day, and I really regretted not having brought my copy of The Savage, which I got signed by David Almond last year. Alas.

Neil Gaiman reading at the British library
Neil Gaiman reading a short story, while Dave McKean played the piano and his art was projected in the background.

After London I went up to Manchester for the first of several Neutral Milk Hotel shows (the way I tend to explain this to bookish friends who don’t listen to the same sort of music as I do is: remember the fake band reunion at the start of Will Grayson, Will Grayson? Well, IT’S NOW REAL and some of us have been hoping for something like this for over a decade and have A LOT OF FEELINGS, OKAY?)

As some of you will know, I lived in Manchester when I was in library school and for a couple of months afterwards, and this trip was my first time going back in a long time. For all the time I lived there, the Manchester Central Library was closed for refurbishment; it finally reopened in March of this year, and one of the things I was looking forward to the most on this trip was visiting it at long last.

entrance to the Manchester Central Library

If there’s one thing this visit revealed to me (and to my long-suffering partner as well) is that I apparently have Strong Opinions on library design. I’ll try not to go on for too long, but here’s a quick list of what I loved and of what I didn’t like as much: I loved that they made such an obvious huge investment and created something that captures so much of what I believe public libraries are about. The new Manchester Central Library is an impressive place, no doubt about it. I loved the quality of the space itself — the furniture, the comfortable sitting areas and the clever displays bays, particularly in the Teen area, filled me with the best kind of library envy.

I loved loved loved the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Library and its prominent location. It’s in the middle of the general lending library rather than being in a room apart, which will hopefully make its diverse contents more easily discoverable. I especially loved the Archives+ are and the fact that the history of the city is displayed so proudly and effectively — particularly its political and intellectual history. This People’s History Museum style approach is what Manchester does best, and it made my heart swell with love for the city. Lastly, I loved the Media lounge with its rows and rows of Macs with the best creative software for free public use; I loved that they have a mentoring programme for creative young people; and I loved the well-equipped music library and crafts rooms.

However, I wasn’t such a big fan of the fact that the library is, for the most part, very compartmentalised. The location of the Race Relations library stood out because it was the exception. For example, the lending library is on the lower ground floor, which makes it not only a bit darker than it needed to be but also not likely to be discovered by anyone who doesn’t come in specifically to use it. It’s quite possible to go into the Central Library to use their amazing state of the art media lounge and not walk past any books at all. The reader development librarian in me can’t fail to see it as a missed promotion opportunity. In my dream library, all these spaces would be integrated, with technology and appealing book displays existing side by side and encouraging creative cross-pollination in more obvious ways.

Also, the children’s area (which is located in a corner of the main lending area and is about a third of the size of the one at my library) is very pretty, with murals inspired by The Secret Garden — but I really missed the warm human touch of displays made by the children themselves. My library has several of these, and I think they play a huge role in making young library users feel that the space is truly theirs. We usually turn making a new library display into an event, and these are always well-attended and greatly enjoyed. There’s nothing handmade in evidence at this library, which makes it pretty in a colder, more clinical way than I’d have liked.

The other thing that struck me is that there are no obvious notices about their programme of children’s events, though I’m sure they have a good one. But I like my library’s very obvious “What’s On” board, and the prominent display of leaflets with dates and times for story times, rhyme times, and children’s reading groups. I like the fact that anyone who walks in will immediately get a good idea of what we offer. Also, it made me sad that there isn’t much space at this shiny new library for rhyme times and story times to be held in the children’s library itself. If at my library we sometimes find it challenging to accommodate all the buggies in the buggy park, here it would be impossible — there’s nowhere they could go. I’m guessing any sessions they have take place in the events rooms — which are top quality spaces, but again we go back to what I said above about compartmentalisation.

Ultimately, it seemed to me that the use of the space and the decision-making process that went into it captures many of the debates I keep coming across in the library world: I love technology and media and creative mentoring and the philosophy behind maker spaces; I love what this library is doing in that regard. But I really hope more people with the power to make big decisions will realise that investing in these things doesn’t mean that you have to see what libraries — particularly children’s libraries, which are generally perceived as a female domain (which yes, adds an inescapable gendered dimension to this debate) — have been doing for so long as outdated and unworthy of an equal investment. Story times, rhyme times, reading groups, children’s crafts, reader development programmes of all sorts: these things are important and they can exist alongside the wonders of making the very best of technology available for free public use. In the end, I walked away from the new Manchester Central Library feeling awed, inspired, and envious of the project’s budget, but also very grateful for my own library’s way of doing things.

No more words, I promise. Pictures instead:

Stained glassed window and statue of woman reading

Manchester Central Library children's area
The Secret Garden murals in the children’s area.


Persephone Books display
Best display ever or best display ever?

Graphic novels display
You can’t really beat a Wonder Woman pop-up book.

Inside Manchester Central Library

Manchester Central Library Archives+
The Archives+ Area.

An honest to goodness library sewing room. Be still my heart.

Local history displays
The Local History displays are beyond awesome.

Local history indexes

Manchester Central Library reading room
The old Reading Room.

First edition of Mary Barton by Elizbeth Gaskell with inscription by the author
An edition of Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell inscribed by the author.

Shakespeare stained glass window

decorated moving shelving

And now a few pictures of the city itself — the weather was gorgeous all weekend and it was a pleasure to revisit:

A new-to-me addition: giant wheel at Piccadilly Gardens.

The good old Northern Quarter.

Manchester Museum of Science and Industry
The Museum of Science and Industry.

Manchester City Hall

The milkshakes at Affleck’s are still the best.

The Curry Mile

Lebanese food at Beirut
Revisiting my favourite Lebanese restaurant.

Kulfi for dessert. I miss the Curry Mile.

Virago Modern classics
The Didsbury Village Bookshop, which I used to live a ten minute’s walk from.

Folio Editions

Stage set for Neutral Milk Hotel at Albert Hall, Manchester
The real purpose of my trip.

Neutral Milk Hotel Albert Hall setlist

Next up: ponies and lambs! I'll be back tomorrow with some photos of my visits to the Peak District and the New Forest


  1. Beautiful pictures, and words to match.

  2. Oh my goodness, Ana, what a lovely, truly spectacular vacation you're having!!! Just wow. I adore your photos *and* your words, btw. And I truly loved reading all your thoughts on library design--I have to admit I'd never really thought of any of that. Of course, the libraries in the towns I've lived in are miniscule in comparison. And as much as I've always loved our own little libraries just for being, I do feel a large dose of envy at libraries like this one and your own lovely one. I cannot wait to hear and see more of your travels!!! And enjoy your days in Portugal, my dear!!!

  3. I'm so glad you're having a good time and had such a nice return visit. I deeeeesperately want you to come evaluate our local city's new library now and give me all your opinions (eg. popular non-fic books can only be read on site - yay or nay). Have a great trip home :)

  4. Griever: Thank you <3

    Debi: I wouldn't have thought of any of that either before I started working in libraries! The visit made me appreciate what I've learned. I completely get feeling big library envy, but there's something to be said for a well-run small branch. They can feel more personal, and I like that too.

    Bookgazing: If it's the one I'm thinking I've wanted to visit that library ever since it opened. I'm sure I'll make it there one of these days, and I'll be sure to report back!

  5. What spectacular pics of Manchester Central. I've heard such a lot about it, so it was wonderful to see it from the inside. Fab!

  6. Book-hound: I'm glad you enjoyed the virtual tour!

  7. All of this is amazing, but that library sewing room blew my mind.


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