In praise of libraries

I’ve always had a very close relationship with libraries. When I was small (probably six or seven) my parents left me in the library, each thinking I was with the other. I was quite happy: the librarians knew me and kept an eye on me, and I sat and read until my horrified parents returned to collect their missing daughter. I still like to make them feel guilty about it, but actually it’s a happy memory: I spent a lot of time in Chesham Library when I was growing up, attending their summer holiday events,and going there every week to pick new books. I was reminded of the excitement the library offered me when I went with my small son to our local library in Bromsgrove last weekend. They have recently moved, and now have more space and a great, colourful children’s area, and it’s a delight for children – even those who can only read a few letters at the moment – to go and choose their own books. His excitement rubbed off on me (and his father), and we all spent some time browsing and choosing our books. Last year Edward did the summer holiday reading scheme, where children have to read 6 books over the holidays, and tell a librarian or volunteer about their favourite book, what happens in it and why they like it. Although I was reading the books to Edward, for img_2528him this was a crucial period, because suddenly the library became a place for him, somewhere meant for children, not a boring place where he trailed round after me.

Of course nowadays there is the internet, so children are less likely to follow up their interests by going to the library and more likely to use a websearch. Nonetheless, there is no substitute for being able to curl up with a book, turning the pages, flicking through it as you find out more about a subject, or following the unfolding of a story – and I don’t think that appeal has gone away even in these days of e-learning. And what a library offers is the opportunity to browse, to consider your options without commitment, and that’s what the excitement is all about. You just never know what you’ll see as you explore the shelves, and consequently I currently have 9 library books on loan from several different libraries (I belong to 15 libraries, but that’s another matter – reading is part of my job!) The books I’ve borrowed include knitting books, poetry, fiction, myth, art and academic books. Although I’m all for buying books to support authors, I wouldn’t have bought any of them – but I might once I’ve read and loved them. And if they’re not what I wanted, I’ll return them none the worse off. So a library really is an invitation to learn something new, for free. The only constraints are how much you can carry home.

A library isn’t just a place to borrow books from, either. Over the last year or so I have
been spending more and more time at the Birmingham Midland Institute library: this is a private library (though very reasonable to join) and is the sort of place you can just hang out, which is what I do most of the time (in fact I’m here so much they’ve put me on a committee). I bring my laptop and read, write, answer emails – all the things I could do elsewhere, but without the usual bmidistractions. The Institute organises events, has a tea-room, and a members room where you can just read the papers over coffee, as well as exhibitions of art in the foyer. I’m currently sitting in the library working before I attend a course on web coding this evening. Last week I came to a theatre production here; in a few months’ time I’ll be giving a lecture on Gothic. This is perhaps the ideal concept of a library: where the arts and sciences and all kinds of learning are brought together and offered to anyone. It encourages the exploration of different ideas, fresh viewpoints, and the opportunity to learn something unexpected, as well as a comfortable place to study, and such a place is valuable.

As the headlines frequently tell us, libraries are under threat. They are having to adapt fast to new technology, threatened by forms of entertainment other than books, trying to suit a very different world from the one for which many libraries were established. Yet all libraries, whether local, public libraries, private institutions or university libraries, all offer the opportunity to explore the world: think of a library as a portal to who knows where. And when you go through the looking glass, you’ll never look back. Emily Dickinson should have the last word here:gladstone2.jpg

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot

That bears the Human Soul –

NB: Other libraries I love: Gladstone’s Library (picture above) – you can stay there! And they have open fires and great cake!

Dr Williams’s Library – lovely place, and I have fond memories of researching 19th century theology there.

The Library of Birmingham – impressive building, which gets better the higher up you go!

The Hive at Worcester – lovely place, child-friendly and helpful staff.

The Morrab Library in Penzance – because some of us can’t help but work even on holiday! Wonderful independent library with comfortable chairs (and not just for academics!)


Gothic in Birmingham

Gothic Poster 150dpiI’m very excited to be organising an event and exhibition on Gothic at the Library of Birmingham. With help from students, I’m putting together a day of talks on Gothic from literature to Goth culture, open to everyone and free to attend, while an exhibition will feature work from BCU students which relates to Gothic. I haven’t yet got a completed programme for the day, but below is the press release, plus the beautiful poster designed by Grace Williams, who is also curating the exhibition. If you’re interested, please follow us on twitter @gothicinbrum, find us on facebook ( or look at the blog:

Library of Birmingham turns Gothic for an exhibition hosted by Birmingham City University.

Press Release by Holly Barry, student in the School of Media.

On Saturday 2nd May 2015, BCU will be hosting an Interdisciplinary Gothic Event  at the Library of Birmingham, showcasing all things Gothic. There will also be an exhibition, running from 7th April – 2nd May to accompany the main event, both organised by Dr. Serena Trowbridge from the School of English with support from second year English student Bex Price.

The event will consist of several talks about different areas of Gothic – fashion, architecture, literature, photography and more. The exhibition is being curated by Grace Williams, a PhD student in the School of Art, and will include a wide range of works by BCU students.

Serena Trowbridge, the organiser, tells us about how the event came about: “I’ve just started teaching a new module on Gothic as part of the BA English, which has been really popular with students. The subject has such a broad appeal as Gothic reinvents itself for every generation.”

Shannon Kooner, a student of the School of English agrees: “Whilst studying the Gothic, I felt the texts specified for us to study were extremely interesting as well as covering a diverse range of topics which worked interchangeably with the Gothic. I would gladly study this module over again!”Gothic Icon

Another student also confirmed: “One of the most interesting modules I’ve studied. I was really surprised by the texts- when you think of Gothic you expect everything to be very cliched, which was absolutely not the case! Great range of ideas and texts covered, extremely interesting.”

Serena says the event should prove popular with the public: “Gothic is a very interdisciplinary subject which also has a wide popular appeal so it’s ideal for a public event. I’m extremely excited about it!”

Dr. Trowbridge’s book, Christina Rossetti’s Gothic, which was published in 2013, grew out of her Ph.D. thesis which she completed at BCU.

As well as the exhibition itself, there will also be a blog dedicated to this event where there will be regular posting of news, updates and any written work revolving around the Gothic theme. You can read it at, or find more information on twitter @gothicinbrum. There is also a facebook group: for contributors and attendees.

Serena adds: “The event and exhibition as a whole will be an incredible way to showcase work for BCU students, to network across the Faculty and to be involved in a fun cultural event. We have some fantastically talented students in the Faculty and it will be great to display their work to the public.”

The event will be open to anyone and admission is free.

Celebrating 25 years of the Pre-Raphaelite Society

OpheliaThe Pre-Raphaelites are everywhere at the moment – on hoardings, on TV, in books and magazines, it seems as though we have revived our love affair with the decadent colours and lush imagery of the Victorian painters – and even those who hate them (and there are plenty who do) still seem to find them interesting. If you are a fan, you may be a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Society, which is celebrating 25 years of existence this year. The Society aims to promote the study of and interest in Pre-Raphaelitism, and is an international society with members all over the world. It’s open to everyone – there are members who are just interested, to serious collectors and academics, so the aim is to cater for everyone. The society holds a series of lectures in Birmingham (details of which are here) as well as trips to places or exhibitions of Pre-Raphaelite interest.

In 25 years, the society has changed a great deal in some ways – such as the style and content of the journal, the Review – and not at all in others. The ‘mission statement’ of the society is its guiding principal:

The Pre-Raphaelite Society is dedicated to the celebration of the mood and style of art which Ruskin recognised and preserved by his writings, and to the observation of its wide-ranging influence. In co-operation with societies of similar aims world-wide, it seeks to commemorate Pre-Raphaelite ideals by means of meetings, conferences, discussions, publications and correspondence, and to draw attention to significant scholastic work in this field. First and foremost, however, it is a society in which individuals can come together to enjoy the images and explore the personalities of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers through the medium of fine art, the appreciation of good design and the excellence of the traditional arts.

I joined the society in 1998, as a postgraduate student writing on The Germ, the Pre-Raphaelite magazine, and in 2004 I took over as rossetti_2327293beditor of The Review, which I (mostly) very much enjoy. I find it fascinating to see ways in which modern scholars are reinterpreting works which were out of favour for much of the twentieth century, and, from the rehabilitation of Millais’s reputation to the growth of interest in women Pre-Raphaelite artists, the landscape has changed considerably since the society’s founding.

We are celebrating the founding of the society, and indeed the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, on Sunday 8th September with #PRBDay on Twitter. Please come and vote for your favourite Pre-Raph painting, by tweeting it to us @PreRaphSoc. I will be counting votes and posting Pre-Raph quotes and links all day, and look forward to meeting some of you virtually then. Last year’s winner was Millais’s Ophelia (top image), and I’m looking forward to finding out which painting will win this year.

lorenzoIf you are not a member of the society but are interested in Pre-Raphaelite art, please do think about joining us. You can join online here, and membership is a very reasonable £14, or £10 concessions. Benefits of membership include:

  • Receipt of The Review the Society’s principal publication, published three times a year and dated Spring, Summer and Autumn. The Review contains articles, book reviews, illustrations and “Notes and Queries”, and offers the opportunity for all members who are interested in research and writing to contribute in a very satisfying way to the Society’s life.
  • Receipt of PRS US: The Pre-Raphaelite Society Newsletter of the United States. Published three times a year, this illustrated bulletin of American news and activities includes such features as “Pre-Raphaelites Online”, “Events” and “The American Collections”, in addition to short historical articles.
  • Receipt of notices of all meetings and visits; and also, of occasional newsletters.
  • Free admission to the Annual General Meeting, which is held in Birmingham on a Saturday morning in late October and which includes a lecture following the business session.
  • The opportunity, for modest charges, to attend other lectures and to join coach trips to galleries, museums and places of interest around the country. (Members can, of course, make their own travel arrangements and meet coach parties at particular destinations.)

Also, we are very nice, friendly people who look forward to welcoming you to the Pre-Raphaelite Society!


The Library of Birmingham

20130904-031355-PM.jpgAs I’m sure you will know, the new Library of Birmingham opened yesterday, amid much press fanfare and a lovely opening speech by Malala Yousafzai, the text of which you can read here. I am partial to a good library, so I went along to have a look, and I must admit I was impressed. I spent many hours in the old library, and the contrast is amazing: the light and open space of this library is remarkable, and I hope will prove inspiring to those who visit it. Spread across nine floors, the Library is reaching for the sky, both metaphorically and literally. The view from the terrace is wonderful, and the design on the outside casts beautiful shadows across the interior.

I didn’t have time to explore as much as I would have liked, but will return again and again, I think, and am looking forward to researching there. From the lending library, with comfortable chairs to encourage readers to relax and browse, to the desks and private study rooms dotted around the upper floors for those needing to work, it is a space which seems to encourage intellectual activity. Trave20130904-031301-PM.jpglling up through the building on a travelator, one is surrounded by enormous circles of books (based on the British Library’s space) and pieces of specially-commissioned art, and the effect is awe-inspiring. Yet, as my colleague said, it is both vast and intimate as a space, which seems appropriate for a library (I could draw parallels between the boundless limits and yet personal voice of books, and the space of the library, but perhaps this is taking it too far!)

The building is a great example of what a library might be: focused on books but also on learning and culture in a wider sense, perhaps aided by the building’s incorporation of the Rep Theatre. The children’s section includes ‘Middle Earth’, as well as a Chill-out Lounge and Beatbox, while upper floors include an art gallery and film-viewing booths, as well as a café and the Shakespeare Memorial Room, reconstructed to match the original room with elaborate ornamentation, and a fascinating range of Shakespearean collections. The Library is running a great range of events to make the most of their remarkable facilities.

Of course, the crucial question is what it will be like as a space in which to study, research and write. The reference collections there are good, and I often recommended students to visit the old library for this reason, and with the help of the floor plan and the online catalogue it shouldn’t be difficult to find things. The spaces for study include private rooms and public tables, as well as the balcony where one can read and relax, and I am looking forward to returning.

20130904-031400-PM.jpgBirmingham has for so long had a bad reputation, for a lack of culture (quite undeserved, with the Rep and other theatres, Symphony Hall and other concert venues, the Museum and Art Gallery, and of course several universities) but this Library should show how serious Birmingham is about learning and culture. It is a monument to the benefits of culture, just as the Victorian museums and other public buildings were – a statement of intent from the council and people of Birmingham that a high priority should be placed on the education, culture and pleasure of the inhabitants. It is also even more significant: Malala said in her speech that world peace can be developed through reading; books are a weapon in the war against terrorism. The more one reads, the more one understands, and Malala is right: through books lie the path to mutual, cross-cultural understanding.

Stained Glass and Birmingham School of Art

large_book4.Yesterday I attended the launch of a new book, Stained Glass Window Makers of Birmingham School of Art. Written by Roy Albutt (who is a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Society), the book examines the work of 11 stained glass makers all affiliated to the School of Art, some of whom may be familiar names to visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, such as Florence Camm and Sydney Meteyard. The book offers information on each individual, including a brief biography and the other arts in which they worked, and cover their training at and relationship to the School of Art in some detail, alongside a description of their works and a helpful Gazetteer which details where their work may be found. Importantly, for a book of this kind, it is also well-illustrated, with 51 colour plates which demonstrate the vibrant appealold-church-smethwick-149x300 of these works. It is likely to appeal to enthusiasts of stained glass and ecclesiology, as well as those interested in Pre-Raphaelite-style work, but it also offers the challenge to those in the Midlands to visit the places listed and admire the beautiful works in person.

Roy is keen to stress the importance of the Birmingham School of Art. Certainly, from the nineteenth century until well into the twentieth, the Arts and Crafts-style work it produced was hugely popular and influential, and Roy hopes that his book will inspire others to research this overlooked area of art history. He made considerable use of the archives and researchers at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD), part of Birmingham City University, which carries forward the work of the School of Art, and I hope his work will inspire further interest in this area. Years ago I did some work on The Quest, the Pre-Raphaelite-style magazine produced by the School of Art, and I am inclined now to consider returning to it.

The book is available from Roy’s website for £12.95.


The Birmingham School of Art

Birmingham, as an industrial city, has held a complex place in the history of British art, becoming a centre for the anti-industrialist Arts and Crafts movement, heavily influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism and William Morris.  Prizing beautiful hand-crafted objects over cheap mass-produced goods, the craftsmen and women abided by Morris’ stipulation that Art should be “by the people and for the people” in the form of everyday objects in the home.  The Birmingham School of Art grew rapidly in the late 1800s as an educational focus for this movement in Birmingham.   In 1877 Edward Taylor became the head of the school and it was under his direction that it expanded in modern and often controversial ways.  The Birmingham school was radical in its new proposals – it was the first school to teach “executed design”, which involved not only the design process and the theory of design but also the practice of craftsmanship in working the design in the intended materials.   There was an obvious conflict of interest between the manufacturers who were keen to have well-trained, skilled workers and those who wished to pursue Art for their own careers.  Many of the local industrialists, however, were followers of Ruskin’s “Art industrialism” ethos and were on the board of the Art School, and with the rapid growth and development of branch schools in the 1890s any conflict of interest was quickly resolved. The Tangye brothers in particular were industrial entrepreneurs who provided the school with a considerable amount of funding.

The Central school, housed originally in Margaret Street (above right), and now part of Birmingham City University, was the more advanced school, while the Branch schools were more elementary.  Some concentrated on the jewellery or furniture trades, while others were along the more traditional Art School lines.  The Branch schools ran evening classes and traditional Art classes, while the newly built Central School in Margaret Street was equipped with airy, modern workshops for the execution of designs by students of craftsmanship.

One of the oldest and most popular Branch Schools was the purpose-built Moseley Road Art School (left), built in 1898 as a direct result of the expansion of interest in Art in Birmingham.  This was built to a design that was appearing all over Birmingham at this time, inspired by the work of architect John H. Chamberlain.  The architectural firm of Martin and Chamberlain was responsible for all the Birmingham School of Art buildings, being architects to the Board Schools from 1871 until 1902.  A journalist of the time commented that “All [these buildings] paraded the bright red brick of revolution and the pink terracotta symbols of municipal pride”.  This “parade” of new, bright, artistic buildings was a direct result of the “Civic Gospel”, a programme of municipal regeneration for Birmingham which planned to make Birmingham the centre of a new Renaissance.  This plan had been instigated in the 1870s by various members of the board for municipal regeneration and artistic committees in the city; the people of Birmingham had worked together as never before to produce a new, creative, thriving metropolis, and they had much of which to be proud.

Walter Crane, advocate of the Arts and Crafts movement and author of many books on the subject, was the Examiner for the Birmingham School of Art in 1889, and his Examiner’s Report praised the work of the School and suggested the extension of the School in line with the growing interest in arts and crafts, and the development of crafts workshops. This was partly due to an increase in the number of women students attending the municipal Art schools in Birmingham, both as fee-paying and scholarship students.  Crafts were seen as a suitable occupation for a woman, although many argued that it was merely fashionable, and that women “amateurs” were taking up the places at the schools which could have been more useful occupied by men.  In 1920 the Moseley Road school added an extension on to the back of the building, which can still be seen today, as workshops specifically for women students. Birmingham School of Art was the first Art School in the country to pass into municipal control, in 1883, and thus gain financial autonomy, and later they fought for and were to win independence in their teaching methods.  It became the model for similar schools in London and Leicester, and by the turn of the century the newly formed Board of Education, which covered Science and Arts, was so proud of the work of the Birmingham School that it sent the students’ work all over the world to be displayed.  The younger generation of artists that came from the Art Schools were more open to ideas and influences from diverse sources and soon made a name for themselves that was a tribute to the work of the Civic Gospel thirty years before. The Moseley building has been flagged as being at risk by the Victorian Society.