The instant reaction to today’s story in Sheffield’s Star newspaper “Chinese plan to turn Sheffield Central Library into five star hotel” is inevitable. People will of course be appalled, in fact horrified is probably a better word. Many won’t read any further than the headline, as the reaction on Twitter is already showing. But here’s why I don’t think we should dismiss this idea out of hand.
First of all, it’s the headline. It doesn’t tell the full story. It could easily have instead been “Plan to invest millions in building new Sheffield Central Library.” The headline instead is typical clickbait and will make many people react in anger without even reading the story. The reality is that IF this goes ahead Sheffield will get a new modern Central Library, and the older building that currently houses the library will be turned in to a five-star hotel. That’s something that the city doesn’t have at the moment and it needs it if it is to compete with other similar sized cities, something which I desperately wish it would do on a more level playing field.
Secondly, it’s about the appalling state of the Central Library building. Whilst it has some brilliant sculptures and art deco features a lot of its structure was knocked up on the cheap in the late 1920s/early 1930s. As a result, the steel frame is severely corroded, the window frames are almost falling out and the roof leaks to such an extent that it causes panic for art gallery staff every time there is a heavy deluge of rain. It also has terrible disabled access and its IT facilities are poor. If it was a 1960s build that was in a similar condition it would probably have been demolished by now, but because it is a beautiful and much-loved building the council has tried to keep it patched up and preserve it as best they can at a time when there is very little money around to invest in it properly.
At the moment this is just a proposal. There’s no guarantee it’ll happen and if it does become a firm plan it needs to be heavily scrutinised, but what it could give us could be something brilliant. Investors (who happen to be from China) would buy the current Central Library building from the city council and turn it in to a hotel thereby preserving one of the city’s favourite buildings. The city as a result gets a modern state of the art library building in return which I hope could be of some architectural significance too. I’m not someone whose instinct is to defend the city council’s ideas. I also love the Central Library and I’m there on average twice a month often more, so this is something that means a lot to me personally. But I’ve also seen the facilities that the new library buildings have around the country and they’re much better than what Sheffield has to offer (For example, I love the interior of the new Library of Birmingham). It may also give us the opportunity to create more space and move many books that are currently in storage on to the shelves where they can be borrowed more easily. It would also be nice if it could at the same time create more space for the city’s art collection which is similarly often in storage as there simply isn’t room to show them properly (at present it’s proposed that the Graves Gallery would move to the ground floor of the existing library building but perhaps there might be a better alternative).
I don’t deny there’s lots to consider properly in this proposal, and I know as little about it as is in the article in The Star. But we shouldn’t just reject it out of hand just because the headline is sensationalist and it involves wealthy overseas investors getting something they want too.