Chichester’s distinctive circular library building is to be found tucked away in Tower Street, set between County Hall and the more recently constructed Novium Museum.
Although opened in 1967, it was only awarded Listed Grade II status in 2015, after being recognised for its architectural and historic interest. English Heritage considers the library of ‘national importance’ and ‘an exemplar from this period of library building’. Furthermore, they describe the library as ‘among few libraries of the period that stand out nationally for the quality of their design and their degree of survival’.
The library was designed by county architect RF Steele and built in 1965-6 by engineers Ove Arup and Partners (who around that time were working on Sydney Opera House). It was formally opened on January 24, 1967, by Asa Briggs, vice chancellor elect of Sussex University.
Although the county library service was founded in 1925, it was not until the current building was completed it had a permanent purpose-built home. The library had been housed at various locations in Chichester, including the old Chichester Theatre in South Street, above the Butter Market in North Street and 22 West Street (now Edes House), where it remained until the current building was complete.
Although a considerable expansion of library services had begun in the late 1930s, this had been slowed by the Second World War and subsequent government restrictions on new building. This meant that it was 1959-60 before a further period of growth occurred and libraries of architectural ambition were built in any number.
These new libraries were influenced by modern ones in the United States and Scandinavia. The enthusiasm of county librarians and architects, together with better budgets, saw a healthy expansion of library buildings and the services they were able to provide. Chichester library is a large and impressive example of this period of growth.
The design was to include a lending library, reference library and reading room, library for music and drama, and office accommodation for county library service, including a reserve book store and facilities for vans (which provide a mobile library service and distribute books between outlying libraries). The library has also been notable for a modern approach to library management, in being the first public library in Britain to use a computerised issue system and a computerised library catalogue was also introduced in 1973.
Commenting on the library’s architectural merit English Heritage praises ‘the elegant unbroken rhythm of its curved exterior, and the sculptural quality of its internal spaces, which are carefully lit and expressed in a simple palette of contrasting materials’.
On the ground floor are glazed open plan areas which now house the adult lending library to the east side, the children’s library on the west, flanked by the work room where staff handle incoming and outgoing books. On the first floor are the open plan reference, periodicals and local studies libraries to the east. Offices and the reserved book store are to the west.
The original flexibility of the design allowed for adaptation throughout the life of the library. A new extension was added in 2009 to improve access by way of a lift and new staircase.
However, the arrangement of open shelves to the east of the building and ‘back of house’ to the west broadly remains the same.
The library has also adapted over time by developing beyond its original brief as a lending and reference library to offer a wide range of services, six days a week, to all members of the local community.
Nowadays, the library is a destination for adults wishing to join reading groups or listen to talks, or maybe research family or local history.
Resources are available to help with learning and development of skills, homework and information for businesses, job seekers and consumers. Wellbeing is also a focus, with a range of resources and drop-in sessions available. Of course, children are welcomed to the library to join in story time and activity sessions.
The library continues to be a key resource for the whole local community, as it was when originally opened over 50 years ago.
By Denise Meeson, volunteer at the Novium Museum