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Library's history has many chapters

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The Guille-Alles opened in 1882 but its story started 50 years before, when two young Guernseymen working in America were inspired by a tradesmen's library in New York. As it celebrates its 25th anniversary as a free lending service and looks to the future, Shaun Shackleton looks back on the library's tentative beginnings

The Guille-Alles opened in 1882 but its story started 50 years before, when two young Guernseymen working in America were inspired by a tradesmen's library in New York. As it celebrates its 25th anniversary as a free lending service and looks to the future, Shaun Shackleton looks back on the library's tentative beginnings THOMAS GUILLE was just a lad of 14 when he took up an apprenticeship in house painting and decorating with Daniel Mauger in New York.

As a family friend, Mr Mauger not only taught him a trade but also sought to further the youngster's education and encouraged him to use his personal collection of books.

The initial love Thomas had for them obviously grew and later that year he joined the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen Apprentices' Library.

Established in 1820, this four-storey building, originally on the corner of Broadway and Park Place, was one of the city's first public libraries.

Its aim was to provide good and instructive reading for apprentice boys who worked all day and had no other access to books. Mindful of its audience, the library kept evening hours.

On its opening night, apprentice boys checked out more than 300 volumes before closing time.

This institution was Thomas's main inspiration to begin putting together his own collection of books. His intention was that, sometime in the future, he might be able to open such a library in his native island.

Thus inspired, in 1834, perhaps the second most important factor in the library's history came about: Thomas was joined in New York by his childhood friend, Frederick Mansell Alles, who had also been apprenticed to Mr Mauger.

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Eventually both of them were taken into partnership with Mr Mauger and became successful businessmen in their own right.

But their determination to provide their fellow islanders with a library remained a burning passion and as free services were developing in the British Isles in the wake of The Public Library Act 1850, Messrs Guille and Alles made it their quest that Guernsey should not be left behind.

In 1851, during a visit to Guernsey, Mr Guille wrote several articles for the Gazette Officielle de Guernesey on the subject of forming district or parish libraries in the island.

The suggestion was followed up by the secretary of the Farmers' Club and Mr Guille offered his collection of books, as well as a sum of money, in order to establish such a scheme.

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The Guille Library, as it was named, did not come into existence until 1856. The collection was divided into five sections to be kept in separate parts of the island.

The intention was to rotate them and establish a 'circulating' library. But this never happened - and with Mr Guille having returned to America, he was in no position to personally supervise the running of the library.

During another visit to the island, in 1867, Mr Guille recalled all the books to a central depot in Commercial Arcade.

Two years later he returned permanently and ran the Guille Library in this central position, as well as a short-lived branch reading room in St Martin's.

The Assembly Rooms, where the Guille-Alles Library is now housed, were built in 1782 at a cost of £2,500 and became a hugely fashionable focus of island social life.

The States purchased the rooms in 1870 and it was from it that Messrs Guille and Alles leased the premises.

The move there was made in 1881 and it was officially opened to the public a year later.

In December 1883, Messrs Guille and Alles purchased the rooms for the sum of £900.

They also bought from the parish a plot of land that belonged to the rectory.

An extension was added and the new rooms, together with the lecture hall and picture gallery above and the main entrance, were completed and opened on 26 November 1888.

This extension now houses the Clifton Room, the reading room, part of the children's library, the Hayward Room and the local-studies department.

In 1881 the trustees of the Guernsey Museum had donated their exhibits to the library and in 1888, during the alterations, the roof was raised to form a suite of rooms to house the Guille-Alles Museum.

Although the founders never provided a free service in their lifetime (Mr Alles died in 1895 and Mr Guille in 1896), a clear principle, as stated in the constitution of the Guille-Alles Library and Museum and Artisans' Institute (registered at the Greffe in 1896), was that the cost of resources of the library should be 'within the reach of all who really desire to benefit therefrom'.

In 1981 the library was totally refurbished and partially reconstructed with a generous donation from Sir Charles and Lady Hayward.

It was expanded to take up the whole of the building and the top floor, formerly occupied by the museum, became the Schools' Library Service.

The new-look library was opened by the Bailiff, Sir John Loveridge, on Wednesday 15 July 1981 and the occasion marked its end as a subscription library and its debut as a free service.

As well as thanking Sir Charles and Lady Hayward for their donation, Sir John's speech outlined the library's recent troubles.

Due to inflation in the 1960s, the library couldn't provide the service that it had done for many years and by 1970 the Guille-Alles Council could see only three alternatives:

* Close the library, dispose of the assets and use the proceeds for an educational charity

* Increase the subscription substantially and provide an exclusive service to those who could afford it, or

* Find a way of reorganising the library and its finances so that it could provide a broad source of information more consistent with the needs of a progressive community.

By the end of 1977, an acceptable working partnership between the States and the library council had been agreed upon and during the following year recommendations about a free library service had been approved by the States, including that to schools.

Contracts for the reconstruction of the building were signed on the understanding that the costs would be met by Sir Charles and Lady Hayward and that the trustees of the library would continue to have full responsibility of the building.

The inauguration took place in the Hayward Room, which before refurbishment had been the lecture hall. Named in honour of its benefactors, a new upper-gallery level had been added and the stained-glass windows fully restored.

The assembly room, the largest in the library, contained fiction and non-fiction books. The Clifton Room, which held reference books on science and social science, was next to the reading room and, across the corridor, the toddlers' corner of the children's library boasted new furniture.

The new Schools Library Service led to the 'reading tower' - a tiny room with porthole windows overlooking the Town Church and the south-east corner of the island - and a restyled entrance hall became the loans control area, complete with a state-of-the-art computer system. Three Telepen units recorded information from individual barcodes placed in each book and customers' data from their own library cards.

Amazingly, all this work, plus the installation of up-to-date heating, lighting and ventilation and also a much-needed lift, was done while the library remained open for business.

Before it became a free service, there were 2,000 members paying a subscription fee of £5 per annum. There are now 24,000 members.

Although the changes of 1981 laid the foundations for a modern library, nothing could have prepared people for the multitude of services that the Guille-Alles provides today.

Although called a library, to think of it simply as a place from which to borrow books would be doing it a huge disservice. A multi-media information and leisure centre would be a more appropriate, though long-winded, name.

Fully computerised, an in-house, online catalogue means that members can access the Guilles-Alles as well as the Priaulx, College of Further Education and Institute of Health Studies libraries.

In 2002, Guernsey Info Net (GIN Online) was launched. This searchable database acts as a community noticeboard and gives information about local clubs and societies. It was followed by a website and online catalogue, with which members can reserve books and renew loans.

Together with audio books on cassette and CD there is an arts video library (which now includes DVDs), a music CD library and a public Internet service for both adults and children.

But perhaps it's the library's strong commitment to readers of the future that is where it is truly blazing a trail.

Bookstart began in 1999 as a partnership scheme with health visitors.

This fantastic nationwide initiative means that on his or her eight-month health check, every baby in the Bailiwick is given a bag containing two books and a library registration card.

A simple idea, but it's everything one needs to start a life-long love of reading.

Then, to ensure that interest is maintained, Bookstart+ provides a pack for all two-year-olds which includes two books and a number frieze to help develop literary and numerical skills, as well as crayons and a colouring pad to encourage artistic endeavours.

The Summer Reading Challenge, which is aimed at 12- to 14-year-olds, runs during the school holidays and, taking a different theme every year, (this year it is The Reading Mission), encourages children to read six books while they are off school (or one a week).

Signing up at the Guille-Alles, they are given a personal folder with stickers and collectable incentives to chart their progress. Children who complete the challenge are awarded a medal at a special ceremony in the library.

This is all paving the way for the readers of the future, but what of the future of the library service itself?

Like any business, the Guille-Alles needs to develop to survive. And it also needs to expand. As essential and as up-to-date as it has made itself, the fact is that with just the one service point, our library falls short of UK standards.

Currently, the big hope for the future is that another branch will be opened at the Bridge, perhaps as part of the proposed Leale's Yard redevelopment, which would significantly improve access to its services for a wider percentage of the community.

But until this time, all library users - from committed bibliophiles, Saturday afternoon reading room users and casual Internet browsers to serious researchers, schoolchildren eager for stories and students hungry for knowledge - will still have their beloved Guilles-Alles in Market Street, St Peter Port.

If Thomas Guille and Frederick Alles could see how much their early vision has grown, and how much further it will grow, they would be proud.

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