good for bristol

Monday, 16 September 2013

Bristol Central Library - What's in the lower floors?

A nearby school wants to take over the lower two floors of Bristol Central Library. On Doors Open Day, Saturday 14th September 2013, I went on a guided tour and found out more about the importance of those floors to the library service and some of the context of the controversy.

I thoroughly enjoyed the 90 minute tour of the library. I've always wanted to see the view of the reading room from the upper galleries and finding out more about the whole building was excellent. A big thank you to the staff who facilitated the day. However, this article will focus on the plan to move the library out of the lower two floors and rent them to a new primary school associated with the neighbouring Clifton Cathedral Choir School.

What are these lower floors used for anyway?

I recently couldn't find any books by J.G. Ballard on the main lending library - most of the novels on the public floor are thrillers and populist novels - so asked a librarian. She disappeared to soon return with a big stack of Ballards. Here's where she went, the lower ground floor:

As you can see it's stacked from floor to ceiling with acres of books. These don't just serve the Central Library, they're sent to-and-fro to different Bristol libraries and then, via Libraries South West, out to another five surrounding local authorities.

I wouldn't have bothered waiting for the Ballards if it'd taken days to bring them from a central depot - and I'd have had to pay a fee for ordering them.

This facility will need to be replaced by renting somewhere else and fitting it out with shelving, air conditioning, lifts, fire safety equipment and so on. Who's going to pay for that?

Sorry for blurring the shit out of this photo. It shows the main library office on the basement floor, shot from the lower ground floor. Once used as the children's library, then the newspaper reading room, it's now the admin centre.

Down on the basement floor there are more acres of shelves of books, periodicals and local publications. Again, where's it all going to go?

Big old books that need to be stored lying flat unless they fall apart. There's lots of these. A thousand years of Bristol's written history. There were a few more parts of the building down here, but the photos didn't come out. More shelves of books, you get the point.

The loading bay and entrance on the basement floor at the Cathedral end of the Library. The red crates contain books destined for other Bristol libraries. The loading bay will need relocating to another part of the library if this space is lost. As there isn't an entrance suitable, it'll need building work.

What's proposed?

The lower two ground floors of the original 1910 part of the library - the oldest part, nearest the Cathedral - is rented out to the a new primary school. These are all parts of the library shown in the photographs above.

The primary school is to be a 'free school' - state funded but not part of local government - associated with the neighbouring Clifton Cathedral Choir School. The primary school will have a catchment area of Bristol, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset and is marketed as a specialist music school.

For the last five years the Clifton Cathedral Choir School has been an academy, before that it was a private, fee-paying school.

It is unclear what will happen to the extensive shelves of books, loading bay and office space. No proposals have been made about where they will go and who will pay for the relocation.

Why must the new primary school be located in the Central Library?

There is no shortage of primary school places in central Bristol.

There are abundant empty office spaces nearby - many of which are owned by the Council. The empty College House, a couple of hundred yards away on the other side of College Green, seems an obvious solution.

Perhaps the answer simply is a posh school wants the library building, and what the posh school wants the posh school gets.

You're starting to sound like some limp-wristed commie pinko lefty-liberal conspiracy theorist!

Digging around, there's history here. Back in 2010 the Council spent £300,000 of public money renovating College Square, behind the Central Library, for the convenience of the school which had just opened a new building on the west side of the square. After the works, the Clifton College Choir School took over the garden in the middle of the square, locking it off from the public during school hours.

The works were described as opening a long-blocked path to the public. It was always open. I walked down it occasionally. It's no different for pedestrians now.

Conspiracy theorists might take note that Stephen Parsons - chair of governors at the Cathedral School - is a senior Merchant Venturer, as is Mayor Ferguson.

I've done my best to ensure this article is accurate. Here are some of the sources, if you want to do your own digging:


  1. Great article - a couple of small inaccuracies: the school is called Bristol Cathedral Choir School, not Clifton Cathedral Choir School. Clifton Cathedral is in fact the Catholic cathedral located up the hill in Clifton.

    Likewise, Clifton College is a fee-paying school up in Clifton, as opposed to the academy and free school which are 'open to all'.

  2. Small inaccuracies? Calling it variously 'Clifton Cathedral Choir School' and 'Clifton College Choir School' doesn't exactly inspire confidence. And, even if you swallow Niaccurshi/Lee Griffin's research (which flies in the face of what the council says btw)to say 'there is no shortage of primary school places' is rather an over-simplification of her/his position.
    Interesting comments about College Square, too. Should the council to be banned from making any improvements to city centre areas because they're near a 'posh school'? On that basis, perhaps Millennium Square was a mistake. After all, it's near a major building of one of those nasty banks (Lloyds).

  3. Thank you for engaging in the debate, goodforbristol. Following on from the other corrections, we would also like to point out that it's not correct to say "It is unclear what will happen to the extensive shelves of books...No proposals have been made about where they will go..." In an excellent recent feature by the Bristol Post's Political Editor, Ian Onions, said this: "Many of them would be transferred to B Bond warehouse in Smeaton Road for storage while others could be kept upstairs in the reference library by better use of the areas accessed by spiral staircases." For the whole feature, go to

    1. Thank you Cathedral Primary School for making the decision to relocate the stock to the B Bond warehouse.....very benevolent of you....this is definite is it?? They have sufficient and suitable storage space do they? It's a permanent solution is it? And, apart from a couple of minor 'naming' errors, I think this is a very enlightening piece. I don't think though that I'll be taking your advice to go to the Evening Post's article for any references on the matter as, on the whole, they have reported this whole shenanigan in a completely biased way! The fact that it was first sold to the public in an article as a 'wonderful reuse of a much underused storage space' shows either complete ignorance of the building and the services it and all it's diligent, hardworking and knowledgeable staff provide or a total bending of the truth which is, frankly, insulting to the public who voted for a responsible Mayor and deserve straightforward honesty! I could go on.......

  4. Great blog The red crates contain books destined for other Bristol libraries. The loading bay will need relocating to another part of the library if this space is lost.Thanks for sharing........

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  5. Interesting article - I used to work in Central Library.....

    Not sure when the office in the blurry photo (which, btw is on a mezzanine floor, not the basement floor) became the main admin area:

    When I was there the main admin offices were situated just off the main corridor on Lower Ground and the office in the photo was for the managers......

    It was also known as The Goldfish Bowl due to the way anyone in the stacks could look down on the managers ;o)