Chase My Yellow Kite - Online Photography Newspaper
Spring Issue 2014

Barbican Research

Sarah Howe explains her love of research and what it’s like to do so at the Barbican centre in London.

words and photography by Sarah Howe – 16/03/2014


When leaving university ( 4 years ago now ) there were the inevitable things I missed, living outside of my means on a government loan, drinking on a school night and the unending stream of creatively themed house parties thrown without reasonable grounds for celebration. But one thing I hadn’t bargained for was how much I would come to miss the building itself, more precisely the library.
Working as a freelancer, often from home, having a large, quiet, book filled space outside of the house, that’s free to access with a reliable internet connection, and without the need to buy coffee at least every other hour, is somewhat of a dream. I think it’s safe to say I’m not alone. In recent years there has been an insurgence of public workspaces – usually residing in coffee shops or bars, some purpose built with joining fees and membership whilst others run a more trusting affair.
However, although some of these spaces are great (and I may well review a couple of them here in weeks to come) they still don’t quite tick all the boxes. Besides, it’s all very well searching the internet for the exact title, replicated image or downloadable ebook, but to actually have the article in question physically in your hands, to flick through the pages of an artists book or to browse the archive of tirelessly preserved historical records makes the whole experience.. well all the more real.
That said it’s often easier to snuggle up with your laptop and a mug in a familiar cafe or worse still in bed (where I happen to be writing this) than venture out and explore these amazing yet often intimidating collections.
So with this in mind I have decided to set out and explore the ever increasing range of work spaces, libraries, archives and reading rooms both in London and further afield; to uncover hidden gems and banish (or in some cases affirm) any preconceptions of grandeur or snobbery in the bigger more established institutions.
I kicked off with the Barbican, renowned for its austere architecture and labyrinthian layout it is perhaps not the most inviting of openers but it’s relatively close to home – just a 35min walk from Roman Road – and it’s looming presence on the horizon kept me on track as I trecked through East London’s cultural stratas rucksacked and ready for a day of uninterrupted research.



I arrived around 9.30 – 10.00 through the entrance on Silk Street which is pretty much exactly where the orange marker is HERE, you can see how close it is to Moorgate and Barbican station so if you didn’t fancy walking there are other options. The building was rather empty and there were still plenty of seats available in the foyer downstairs where there is also free wifi (really easy to access and fast: info HERE)


I made my way to the library on the second floor. I’d ventured up here before but only really skimmed the shelves and left. This time I was ready to join! I had been prepared enough to bring along some ID and a letter as proof of address. So when I was greeted at the memberships desk – directly on the right as you walk in – by an amiable Scot, slow and thorough in his explanations, it only took a matter of minutes before I was all signed up and ready to go as a library member.


Anyone can join free of charge, and as part of the membership you not only get access to the Barbican centre’s general, music and children’s libraries, but you are also the following locations:
All of these make up the City of London Libraries and I was interested to find out that if you borrow something from one library you are able to return it to any of the other locations.


Once inside, the library is split into different sections the fiction and general reference is to the left and the large music library; equipped with listening booths, downstairs and the Art library (where I was headed) to the right. The main problem I found was a lack of plugs. I had not had the foresight to check I was fully charged before setting out. As there are only 5 dedicated booths for laptop use across the entire two floors even at this relatively quiet time I was unable to get a seat. Wifi didn’t seem to be a problem though – worth noting I had been advised be another helpful member of staff that the connection was considerably better in the arts library than in other areas.
The crowd was refreshingly mixed and, unlike some places I have been, didn’t seem to mind sharing the space with each other.


I was unable to work as I had intended with my laptop and so decided to just get some books out. As a photographer I was looking for a few monographs and then some general theory books. Although the selection was relatively small in terms of the subject matter I was looking for, I did manage to get two of the three titles I had been looking for and stumbled across another couple that caught my attention. Considering this is not a specialist photography or media library I was pleasantly surprised. I only took out three books in the end from a possible 12 I could have borrowed. I have these now for the next three weeks and when signing up was given an online login where I will be able to renew them if needed.


Books in hand I made my way back downstairs to the main foyer with mixed feelings. I had the books but to actually work in the library as intended I would have either needed to get there at opening time, or only stayed the length of time may battery allowed. Therefore despite anything I’ve previously said on the matter I found myself sipping coffee from the Costa stand on the ground floor settling down one of an empty table with plug socket to hand. I managed to get quite a lot of work done in the end and quite appreciated the humdrum of mothers chatting and meetings taking place around me. No one commented when I took out my shop bought sushi and I wasn’t hassled or moved on even during the lunchtime rush. I left around 5.30 feeling relaxed, with a sense of accomplishment and a selection of books to keep me going for the next three weeks.