I have been a member of the Lit & Phil for about 10 years now. I became aware of the library after hearing a poem read by Sean O’Brien during an exhibition I was taking part in with Birtley Aris in a gallery in Alnwick. I remember feeling totally intrigued by the poem, with a need to find out more about this place, the Lit & Phil. The opportunity soon arrived when the Lit & Phil gave their Phantoms at the Phil night; on that night, Sean O’Brien was once again performing and this time I had a chance to have a personal guided tour of the building by his partner Gerry. I was now hooked and, with the agreement of Librarian Kay Easson, I took up the role of artist-in-residence, creating a body of work using printed glass to reflect aspects of the Society’s heritage and the oral history provided by members and library staff.
At a time when libraries are under threat of closure, not only in Newcastle but further afield, the impact on the public is not just the loss of books and access to reading, but also the loss of public community spaces. To be a member of the Lit & Phil is a privilege and not one I take lightly, conscious of the Society’s historical achievements (and those persons associated with the Library) and the organisation’s forward thinking agenda. The environment of the Lit & Phil and public space is unique: a space where debate and discussion continue to take place amongst its book shelves and reference books. Below, in the bowels of the library’s building, historical archives and collections reflect the library’s development and growth, referencing the heritage of the region and history of the Empire. Access to books should not be a privilege but a guaranteed right for everybody. The public space the library (any library) inhabits is essential to nurturing a community of learning and awareness.
The Lit and Phil, like so many other libraries, uses the environment as performance space, exhibition venue, lecture theatre, workshop space and much more I am sure. It is a difficult balancing act maintaining the integrity of the library space as an engaging venue while widening participation. A few words of warning then from Dr Tiffany Jenkins, recent visitor to the Lit & Phil as part of the Radio 4 series hosted by Melvyn Bragg in early January, ‘The Value of Culture’. In her blog Dr Tiffany Jenkins raises concerns about Midlothian Council organising pole dancing classes on 2nd February as part of ‘Love Your Libraries Day’. She quite rightly points out the effect this kind of stunt can have in devaluing libraries. Asking volunteers to run libraries is another way of devaluing libraries, a suggestion current in the economic climate.