We are probably all being affected in some way by looming budget cuts by local councils. In Reading where I live there are mutterings afoot of libraries, local swimming pools and children’s centres taking a hit – all of which I am a frequent visitor.
Reading has a number of local libraries built during the Edwardian period funded in part by the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). One such building – the 1908 Battle Library – has inspired a pre-emptive petition to save the building despite no verdict having been reached on how the council will execute cuts. The petition identifies the social negatives if it was closed, all of which I empathise with. However the reason I signed the petition is for the very possible loss of what is a stunning Grade II listed building: if a building is left empty it can quickly start to decay.
By coincidence I studied Battle Library in detail recently, and travelled a voyage of discovery. The moment I walked into the library I knew it was special – the high vaulted ceilings with decorative ventilation grilles and stained glass create an uplifting atmosphere within which to browse or study.
The research was to establish any historic ‘significance’ of the interiors so
I checked its listing description as recorded on the National Heritage List for England. Common with many older entries – Battle Library is from 1978 – the description is relatively brief and does not provide a definitive reasoning for the ‘significance’ of the building. Similarly the interiors are not described in detail.
This level of detail is acknowledged by Historic England as generally lacking. To address this problem it has developed a series of publications – Designation Scheduling Selection Guides – to aide ‘high level’ understanding of designated buildings whilst the listing descriptions are brought up to date with improved information in the interim, one by one.
The guide under which libraries fall, Designation Listing Selection Guide for Culture and Entertainment Buildings, did provide a measure of clarity. But to understand more specifically how typical the building is of its era I had to spend time in both the RIBA’s library and Reading’s central library to research the social and historic context in which these types of libraries were designed and built.
To cut a long research story short Battle Library should be considered, both externally and internally, an outstanding example of the Edwardian movement of library design. It did, however, take substantive research for me to draw this conclusion and it was not possible to identify a piece of research which specifically stated this for this particular building.
This common lack of readily accessible relevant information, coupled with typically overworked conservation officers means it is possible, therefore, that the ‘significance’ of many designated buildings up and down the country is being overlooked. Detailed information on interiors is particularly limited and could expose many buildings to works that irreparably damage its significance.
Historic England is proactively addressing this issue and will launch in May 2016 its ‘Enrich the List’ initiative. This will enable anyone to provide information and photographs of listed buildings. It advises information will be moderated but facts will not be verified, although this supplementary information will be clearly identifiable. For more information click here.
Do contribute if you have the knowledge – it may help a vulnerable building to be recognised for its quality – not just for its current use – which could help it weather periods of economic change longterm.