The city of Birmingham is famous for reinventing itself. No sooner are buildings thrown up than plans are hatched to raze them and start again. A good case is the central library. The ‘old’ library, an inverted concrete pyramid of stupendous brutality opened in 1974, has been abandoned in favour of a brand new block only a stone’s throw away. The new ‘Library of Birmingham‘, the largest public library building in Europe, was opened by Malala Yousafzai in September this year. We went to pay a first visit last week.
The outside of the new building is no X Factor beauty – just a jumble of rectangular blocks piled one on another, with a stubby tube stuck on top. Its geometrical severity is softened by a filigree metal blanket that gift-wraps almost every surface. The best you can say about it is that it’s big and easy to find.
But go through the rotating glass door – slowly: some improvements needed here – and the inside is very different. Space is divided up to confound expectation and invite exploration. Not a book to be seen at first, but everything abuzz with activity, and hundreds of people moving in all directions. Each of the seven floors open to the public is differently designed and has its own feel. Below is the children’s library and music library, with an ‘amphitheatre’ at the back. Above the ground floor a ‘book rotunda’ pierces four further floors, its circumference lined with books to echo libraries of an earlier age. Escalators, transporters and lifts crisscross this space, transporting visitors – a metaphor for the city outside, traditionally a place of constant and rapid movement.
Thousands seem to be here – over 12,000 are said to come through the door each day – gawping, browsing, photographing, studying, conversing, drinking coffee, consulting the staff, one or two asleep. Bookshelves gently radiate, and share the spaces with help desks, network points, elaborate easy chairs that satirise and democratise the winged chairs of gentlemen’s clubs, a BFI ‘mediatheque’, study rooms, copiers, a ‘contemplation room’.
Floor 4 is quieter, dedicated to archives and local history. Here you find a rare jarring note. A warning on the door to the archives centre says that an appointment is always necessary. This in a building that is otherwise insistent that everything is open to everyone (the answer to the question on an information screen ‘Who can join the Library? is ‘Everyone.’). Archivists are hard to change!
Right at the top of the building is a surprise: the wood-panelled Shakespeare Memorial Room – a tall, ornately decorated space reconstructed from its original home in the first public library of 1882. Alas the dignity of the intention is undermined by a poor choice of volumes for the shelves.
Even at first glance – and we spent only a couple of hours inside – it’s clear that the Library of Birmingham is a tour de force, and already a brilliant success. The public, of all ages, love it: the architect, Francine Houben of Delft architectural firm Mecanoo, described it as a ‘people’s palace’. The ambience is welcoming and open. The range of activities it offers is immense: all the services of a multimedia library, plus exhibitions, theatre, talks, Saturday film club, readings, views of the city from two terrace gardens, and much more.
Visiting the Library of Birmingham gives you faith in the continuing vitality of public libraries – provided that they continue to receive public support, and provided they have the ability to reinvent themselves. But as news comes of yet more library closures throughout the country as a result of the UK government’s disastrous ‘ austerity’ economy it’s hard to ignore the plight of other less fortunate libraries – including maybe some branch libraries in the city of Birmingham that have suffered to ensure the success of the ‘Library of Birmingham’ (which cost £188.8m to build and must be very costly to run). But perhaps this is the shape of public libraries in future: if they’re to survive it will be as large centralised entities, not as a comprehensive network of local services. A decision to go ahead with the Birmingham library was taken just before the financial crash: decisions on future projects of the same kind will require a renewed and massive public commitment to what libraries offer and stand for – a tall order.