Books galore and a ‘place to go’: library prepares to open doors after big move

AFTER an almost 20-year interlude the Shetland Library will reopen the doors to its 1960s-built Lower Hillhead premises to islanders on Monday – much to the relief and delight of staff who have spent the past six weeks engaged in the mammoth task of relocating over 60,000 books.

The library’s 2002 flit to the former St Ringan’s Church just across the road was a decision that baffled many given it was too small to house most of the library’s collection. Now a reversal has been completed it seems more inexplicable than ever.

But all’s well that ends well – work has already kicked in to transform the picturesque old kirk into a new council chamber, which it is hoped will be ready for action before councillors’ current term ends in the spring.

And any blame lies with neither the councillors of today nor current library manager Karen Fraser, who laughingly says she is optimistic the newly-refurbished building will endure for “at least my working lifetime” and beyond: “They’ve done such a good job on the building – I really hope it lasts for a lot of years.”

The 18 months preceding the move have encompassed upheaval including closure for several months during the first Covid-19 lockdown in spring 2020, and it will only be from 10am on Monday that Shetland Library’s pre-pandemic opening hours are fully restored.

“We had been hoping to move in the summer and suffered various delays, so when we finally got here it was quite exciting to get going,” Karen says, adding she cannot wait to see people “thronging around” again.

Although it is being billed as a “soft opening”, with the public urged to be patient as the finishing touches are applied in the coming weeks, the bulk of the library’s services will be back in full swing across two floors of the iconic building next week.

From the first floor, which until its 2007 move to Hay’s Dock housed the Shetland Museum collection, you can enjoy a panoramic view stretching over Lerwick’s rooftops as far as the Ness of Sound in one direction and – from January 2023 at least – the possibility of a bird’s eye view of the Up-Helly-Aa procession beneath Lerwick Town Hall in the other.

Walking through the doors again will involve an element of going back in time for many folk, though of course the service has moved on and now incorporates a computer room adjacent to the main reception desk, a laptop bar on the first floor and various desk and seating areas dispersed around the building with Covid-19 and social distancing in mind.

Another change sees the old bairns’ room on the right-hand side of the ground floor – which Karen agrees feels like a much smaller space than she remembers – repurposed to house the Shetland room, packed full of local titles alongside a microfilm reader containing old print editions of The Shetland Times and Shetland News.

The ever-popular Ann Cleeves novels that spawned the global hit TV show, incidentally, have the honour of qualifying for both the Shetland room and the wider crime fiction section.

A capacious new bairns’ section occupies the south-facing first floor gallery, full of brightly coloured beanbags, playmats, a tepee and a colossal range of children’s books. Karen predicts it will be a “big hit” as young people’s librarian Chloe Tallack strives to keep up with buoyant demand for early years Bookbug sessions that have “grown and grown”.

Along with having all the library’s services under one roof again, a major boon is the vast increase in the volume of books on display rather than gathering dust in storage.

There is a three to four-fold rise in the number of titles back on the shelves in various sections – and Karen estimates that when the move is fully completed in early 2022 there will be 77,000 books in all.

Because most of the shelving has been recycled and reused, including some sourced from the old Anderson High School library, the move involved a “really complex sort of plan” including “a spreadsheet of about 250 different moves to get everything in the right order”.

Library manager Karen Fraser.

Karen is effusive in praising the efforts of her small team, including former librarian Douglas Garden who has been roped into the role of “shelving expert” for the past six weeks. “The staff have just knuckled down amazingly well,” she says. “They’ve been happy to roll up their sleeves and just do everything and anything, from cleaning and scrubbing things to moving these endless boxes of books!”

That is bound to have come with its stresses and strains, but morale among those staff is noticeably chipper when Shetland News visits late on Friday afternoon. Karen concedes that may have been “bolstered by lots of sweeties and chocolates”, but she detects “lots of enthusiasm for getting customers back in”.

The bulk of the project’s £1.6 million budget has gone on re-roofing and installing more energy-efficient new windows, along with an air-source heating and cooling system.

The internal décor has been kept “nice and clean and clear” with colours “as neutral as possible because there’s so much visual clutter with the books”, Karen explains, though a couple of lovely Maxie Bain paintings adorn the wall in the Shetland room and a vintage Fiddlers’ Bid portrait hangs in the stairwell.

Many of the other walls and spaces are “a bit of a blank canvas and a work in progress”, much like the general layout with bits of furniture still to be added and most of the shelving in the main adult fiction (ground floor) and non-fiction (first floor) sections on wheelable trolleys allowing for easy adjustment as time goes by.

“I think folk will receive it really well,” Karen adds. “It’s still about books, and now computers, obviously, but it’s about a place to go. When we were shut [during lockdown] people realised the library was one of the few places you can go for free, and you don’t have to justify why you’re there.”

Shetland News