Harris creates special space in heart of city

Fiona Finch reports as a new page is turned in the life of Preston’s Harris museum, art gallery and library – and discovers the city can take pride in a new and welcoming public space
Patrick Jenkinson at the Writing: Making Your Mark displayPatrick Jenkinson at the Writing: Making Your Mark display
Patrick Jenkinson at the Writing: Making Your Mark display

Step inside Preston’s new hidden gem and you will be transported to a more elegant era.

Time does not quite stand still, but as befits its location, the city’s Harris Museum, Art Gallery and Library, the step back in time allows you to enjoy spacious surroundings and a new view of the city.

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The cause for celebration? None other than the library’s one time reading room and more recently its community history library.

The Heritage Reading Room - complete with sofasThe Heritage Reading Room - complete with sofas
The Heritage Reading Room - complete with sofas

It officially reopened last Friday as the re-named Heritage Reading Room and the change for those who will remember the former reading room is immense.

In have come comfy leather sofas and carefully selected book collections to browse, in has come space and light and in has come the opportunity to partition off part of the room for talks and events.

There is still a quiet study area. There are still the historic chairs , tables and bookcases – and there are still books, lots of them.

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Fittingly for its reopening there is something very new – a British Library exhibition.

Far end of lthe now light filled Heritage Reading Room overlooking Lancaster RoadFar end of lthe now light filled Heritage Reading Room overlooking Lancaster Road
Far end of lthe now light filled Heritage Reading Room overlooking Lancaster Road

A pop-up mini display ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ has gone on show in 20 public libraries around the UK, including the Harris, all linked to a main exhibition at the British Library.

The exhibition was launched through the Living Knowledge Network, comprising libraries working in partnership with the British Library, National Library of Wales and the National Library of Scotland.

It examine the origins of writing in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and the Americas tracing writing up to the present day and beyond.

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A free activity learning trail for families and groups traces the history of writing - thought to have originated in Mesopotamia some 3,400 to 3,300 years BC and in Egypt by 3,200 BC followed by China in 1300 BC.

Companion display to the  Writing: Making Your Mark exhibitionCompanion display to the  Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition
Companion display to the Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition

The trail looks at writing systems and styles and materials used, writing as art work, how writing has brought about change and asks how writing will be used in the future.

It's an appropriate subject for a Heritage Reading Room - looking both backwards and forwards. The new look room has numerous book collections available for easy access.

Patrick Jenkinson, Libraries Team Leader with Lancashire County Council, said: “There are so many amazing books in our special collections – it’s nice to get them out. It’s important making sure the amazing stuff we’ve got is available to the public and the public is aware of the amazing stuff we’ve got.

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“It’s still important that we promote reading, that we say we are here. It’s true we have the digital side of things and we do a lot around health and wellbeing and a lot around culture but we still love the books.”

There will be calligraphy talks linked to the exhibitionThere will be calligraphy talks linked to the exhibition
There will be calligraphy talks linked to the exhibition

He continued: “The room has been refurbished. It’s refurbished. It’s almost unrecognisable. There are certain things you can do. We’re in a Grade I listed building so there are things you can’t alter. We’ve taken out the main desk which was very old and very retro looking and a bit tired. By taking it out it opens up central windows and illuminates the area really very well. Everything feels new and fresh. I think we’ve been loyal to the original fabric of the building.”

Catherine Mugonyi, creative programmer at the Harris, added: “Another big difference is having the comfortable seating. It’s absolutely lovely.”

Both Catherine and Patrick stress the aim is to encourage library users to explore the museum and art gallery and for gallery visitors to see what the library service has to offer, to ensure the Harris is “a single seamless experience”.

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Catherine stressed the ambition is to encourage people “to make more of the building and the spaces and it’s somewhere they can relax as well. The room is a lot more flexible in terms of events and activities. It means we’ve another big space where we can host lots of different things. It’s just so much easier to move things around”.

Making different use of such public spaces is a theme taken up by Tim Joel, deputy head of culture at Preston City Council. He said: “It’s all part of our plans to reimagine the Harris. The team has worked really hard over the last couple of months to transform the room.”

Items from the museum’s collections will be showcased in the room ensuring a changing display will add interest for visitors.

Time to browse some booksTime to browse some books
Time to browse some books

The showcases currently hold items linked to the Making Your Mark exhibition, including antique ink pots, inkwells, hot metal type, old typewriters an Chinese vases with a design featuring writing tools.

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Book collections and displays range from local history, Lancashire sport and recipes, textiles and dress and famous Lancastrians to art book and military collections.

The Harris is now hoping for feedback from the public on its new look Heritage Reading Room. I certainly wanted to select a lovely art book,enjoy the new space and settle down on a sofa. But the office beckoned.

* Writing: Making Your Mark continues until August 27.

* A series of companion events will take place at the Harris from now until August, including: Imagine the World - live from the Hay Festival on Saturday May 25 and a Traditional Calligraphy Workshop on Saturday June 2 from 12.30pm - 3.30pmOn Saturday June 8 there will be a Meet The Author session withOnjali Rauf 11am - 12.30pm and 1.30pm - 3pm. Calligraphy - illumination and gilding is on Wednesday June 26. * To learn more about the British Library exhibition, see bl.uk/writing.