York Explore has been closed for renovations since June. With the work almost complete MATT CLARK previews what we can expect.

SIXTH months ago the roof leaked, the parquet floors were shot and there was damp, peeling plaster everywhere. Now, after a huge refurb, York's central library is a month away from reopening.

Walls are freshly painted, new furniture is being assembled and finally the books are coming home. Chief executive Fiona Williams says it's something she's been looking forward to for ten years.

"Last week I came to look round and all of a sudden had this moment of stillness," she says. "I just know everything's okay and it's going to work."

Although many feared the worst for their beloved library, everything important remains as it was, the same diverse mix of books, the familiar chairs and desks.

What's happened is that the building has been returned to its original glory. Tatty 1980s carpets have gone and the wooden floors re-polished. Then there are the Victorian mouldings, mahogany door frames and pillars; all as good as new. Even some of the original shelves remain.

So what has changed? The amount of light for starters. Somehow the whole place feels much airier, not to say cleaner, but perhaps the most important addition is a purpose-built repository for the city's 800-year-old archive.

As Fiona says, this is long overdue, because until now it has been stored in conditions that were far from acceptable.

"The archive in York hasn't had a certain future," she says. "There was doubt over where it would be and who would look after it. I've often been down there mopping up."

One winter the drainage people even arrived armed with a sump pump. That's no way to treat a city's written heritage.

Now everything will be wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and stored in an environmentally controlled vault covered in gold coloured panels that hint at the treasures inside.

At last York's archive is being protected and preserved for future generations.

For the first time it is also being catalogued by archivists such as Sarah Tester, who has spent the last couple of weeks making sure there will be at least 20 collections available to view when the library reopens.

"These will go to our online catalogue, so people will be able to search for an archive," says Sarah.

"We're also making sure everything is packaged properly, so when somebody comes to request something from the store, we will be able to find it quickly and make it accessible in the reading room."

Obviously frail objects won't be available, but anyone can apply to see York's ancient documents and now the process is much easier. That, Fiona emphasises, is important. This is a working library and has to be relevant.

"It's about promoting the joy of reading rather than looking after books as a book museum," she says.

So this is a two pronged strategy. Firstly to be custodian of some of the most important archives outside London, secondly to encourage more of us to get into the habit of going to the library.

The latter aim began in 2009 when the ground floor received a facelift, to include a cafe. The library was also renamed York Explore. Many tutted. PC nonsense they complained, but Fiona explains the idea was to get rid of the stuffy, staid, tweed jacket image.

And what's wrong with toddlers playing and mums chatting over coffee, as long as other floors are kept silent?

"I like to think we are going back to the ethos of the library in Alexandria, where it was about people coming together to create ideas, to access and to generate knowledge," says Fiona. "That's what Explore is all about, the library is just part of it."

There's a great example of this in a former musty store room that has now been opened up with a mezzanine floor and comfy chairs. It's a place to escape the hustle and bustle and discuss books.

That said, the newly restored first floor is everything a traditional library should be, just not leaky and draughty any longer.

"People love this place. We've respected the building and everything is as it was but better," says Fiona. "Eighty per cent of our users come here for the books and there will always be a space to sit down and read in silence.

"I think people will be pleasantly surprised on January 5."