Make more Elbow room for the nation's libraries, says Guy Garvey

The singer is trying to create a big noise to stem the tide of closures of these creative hubs, with the help of a radio station, some DJs, and a two-week celebration

Adam Sherwin
Sunday 09 November 2014 01:00 GMT
Guy Garvey believes libraries are vital creative hubs and ‘part of our history’
Guy Garvey believes libraries are vital creative hubs and ‘part of our history’

Anyone trying to start a music revolution from their local library might ordinarily be told to "shush". But the volume is now being turned up with a two-week BBC 6 Music celebration of the central role that the humble library has played in inspiring a generation of artists.

A combination of budget cuts and Kindles threatens civic libraries but the 6 Music season, the brainchild of Guy Garvey, the Elbow singer and a life-long library fan, presents an alternative vision. He argues that libraries are vital creative hubs, seats of learning where great lyrics might be composed; they also house a wealth of archive audio and visual material which can be transformed into cutting edge tracks by DJs and sampling maestros.

In his Finest Hour programme next weekend, Garvey will invite the digital music station's listeners on a tour of his three favourite Manchester institutions: the John Rylands Library, a "Neo-Gothic treasure trove"; Manchester Central Library, which has reopened after a £38m refurbishment; and a "hidden gem" – the Portico Library. "I spent a lot of my childhood in a library; every Saturday I would go to the library with my Mum," Garvey told The Independent on Sunday. "I was an avid reader when I was a kid, I read a lot of poetry."

Garvey successfully campaigned to keep open the Unsworth Library in Bury ("temporarily, I fear"), where he wrote some of Elbow's songs. "I was influenced by old stories, local folklore as well as poetry. I pulled all kinds of things off the shelves, sometimes randomly, just to see what they would throw up. I used to go to Manchester Central Library all the time, to use its beautiful central reading room in order to write."

Even the melancholy aspect of an afternoon whiled away in a library can inspire him: "The libraries are part of our history and they also remind us of our gloomier hours. They're not just about old books, they're also important for our community today as places where people can meet, learn and share ideas.

"In Manchester Central Library's reading room you're still encouraged to keep quiet, but the rest of the place is humming with music and activity and you can touch Manchester's oldest treasures."

An estimated 10 per cent of the UK's 4,500 libraries are under threat of closure, as local councils seek to implement Westminster-mandated cuts. Some authorities are trying to replace professional librarians with volunteers. Might the physical library become an anachronism now that readers are able to summon up a title with a single click on a tablet?

Garvey doesn't think so: "There's room for physical and digital," he said. "And interestingly if you send something to the North West Film Archive – now located in Manchester Central Library – they keep the physical item.

"If you send them a VHS of your wedding they'll digitise it, but they'll also keep that original VHS in a temperature con- trolled environ- ment. It's state of the art, it's beautiful."

Garvey will join a special Radcliffe and Maconie show, broadcast from Manchester Central Library on Friday, which will follow the art-pop band Everything Everything as they write and record their new album in a glass-panelled room, in view of visitors returning books.

"As a band we see Manchester Central Library as the brain of the city," said Jeremy Pritchard, the bassist. "We are attracted to the egalitarianism of the public library as an institution. Anyone can enter and indulge any interest. We want to curate a residency that will reflect and explore this."

Julie Cullen, BBC 6 Music editor, said: "When Guy proposed that 6 Music do something around libraries, it wasn't immediately obvious how a radio station might cover an art form that is essentially rooted in the visual act of reading and the physical act of turning the pages of a book.

"What transpired was a fascinating conversation about the role of the library as a gatekeeper of some of the most memorable and important sound archives," she added.

" '6 Music Celebrates Libraries' is as much about the art and mechanics of collecting, storing and preserving music collections, as it is about the space that bubble-wraps them for future generations to discover anew.

"Libraries are synonymous with silence; now 6 Music is seeking to turn up the volume on their greatest hits."

Sound effects

Steve Lamacq

The 6 Music season will air the first live radio show from the British Library in London. Steve Lamacq will present his programme from the entrance hall, which houses one of the most comprehensive sound archives in the world, from 19th-century cylinders to CDs. Among its treasures are Beatles' manuscripts, John Peel programmes, demos by The Who and a Capital Radio show hosted by Johnny Rotten at the height of punk.

6 Music presenters will choose a book and compile a playlist to go with the season, available via the BBC Playlister. Mark Radcliffe's choice is Laurie Lee's As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning with soundtracks from Sly and the Family Stone and Miles Davis.

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