House of art & knowledge

This afternoon a small group of librarians had a little outing to the Beaney House of Art & Knowledge in the fair city of Canterbury. The Beaney, as it’s known for short, is named after Dr James Beaney, a philanthropist and former resident of Canterbury, who left the city a bequest with which to build “an institute for working men.” This became the Beaney Institute and served as Canterbury’s museum of local history and its public library from 1899 until 2009, when it was closed for a major re-development funded by £13,000, 000 of Heritage Lottery Fund money.

The re-developed Beaney continues to house Canterbury’s public library and museum, but also now includes the city’s tourist information office and extended art galleries and also includes space for special exhibitions. Today, we had a guided tour of the building, most of which I’d never been into before. I’d been to the public library and a couple of the gallery spaces, but hadn’t been upstairs to the museum rooms at all.

We started off by going into the library, and looking briefly at the self service machines there. These are RFID -compliant machines, and are used to both issue and return books. If a book is OK to be re-shelved it goes onto a trolley, and if not it goes into a book box/bin to be collected by library staff and dealt with. I did wonder how often things get put on the trolley when they should have gone into the book box, and vice versa!

Next we went upstairs in the library to look at the local studies sections and, interestingly, the registration rooms. As well as performing the usual array of library duties, library staff at the Beaney are now also dealing with registrations of births and deaths, which I must say seems like an odd combination of work, but I’m sure the council(s) know what they’re doing (?)…Anyway, there are little rooms set aside for the registering of births and deaths, and people who formerly worked as registrars are now also employed as library staff. Sadly, the library is not licensed for weddings! Maybe one day…

The local studies sections were quite busy with people – in fact the whole library was bustling – and the rather messy shelves were evidence of the fact that the library is heavily used, a fact backed up by statistics read to us by our guide. I’m afraid I can’t remember the figures at the moment, but they were pretty high, both in terms of visitor numbers and the how many books people borrowed. The local history section contains some fairly old books (1700s) locked away in cabinets, and many books about the local area that I think my mum would like to get her hands on. After the local studies section, we went down into the children’s area, which was free of children at that point, but apparently gets very busy at Baby Rhyme Time – so much so that they have had to increase the number of sessions offered in order to be able to fit everyone in!

Finally in terms of the library area, we looked at the ‘talking books’ and large print books, which are heavily borrowed by sight impaired and blind people; as well as being taken out to housebound folk by library volunteers. I was reminded again what a valuable service public libraries provide.

After looking around the library, we went to have a nose around the staff areas, which are in the basement. I must admit I felt rather sorry for the staff, but at least they have a few home comforts  – a small kitchen and a place to eat lunch (although I wouldn’t blame them if they’d rather go outside). Then, we went upstairs and had a look at the two gallery rooms at the front of the building. These house a variety of paintings and drawings. I particularly like the large cow painting by Thomas Sidney Cooper, the sheep drawing by Henry Moore (in the Garden Room) and a drawing by a local artist I really wish I could remember the name of (in the Front Room). I’ll have to go in and look at it again.

We then went upstairs to look at the other gallery and museum rooms. They are all full of fascinating, and sometimes bizarre, things, e.g. a mummified cat in the Ancient Egypt display. I particularly liked the Drawing Room, which houses displays of paper- and book-based art. There were some intriguing items in there that I’m planning to go back and look at when I have more time. However, I think the highlight of the gallery/museum space was the charming, interesting and amusing temporary exhibition Through the Magic Mirror: The World of Anthony Browne – and we got to see it for free, which was a bonus.

And that was the end of our visit! The Beaney is most definitely a fine example of a house of art and knowledge, and well worth a visit if you happen to be in Canterbury. And of course, it contains lots and lots (and lots) of lovely, amazing and interesting books that you can borrow – free! Sometimes I am slightly overwhelmed by the brilliance of public libraries.

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