Last week I went to the Library of Birmingham, opened last September by Malala Yousafzai, to have a look round. As you can see from my (dark and slightly blurry) photos, it is an impressive building. Seeing it come into view as I walked from the station I felt a mixture of awe and excitement. Designed by the Dutch architects, Mecanoo, it cost £188 million and thus makes quite a statement in these times of cost-cutting and library closures.
On my way to the library, I passed Birmingham’s other central library on Paradise Circus, now destined for demolition. A friend from Birmingham who used to use it said it was a pretty depressing place with little natural light. The new Library of Birmingham couldn’t be more of a contrast. The large windows let in lots of light and the spacious, modern building would be the perfect place for studying, relaxing, meeting friends.
I started my tour of the library on the lower ground floor. At the centre is the music library, which surrounds an outdoor amphitheatre. From the amphitheatre, you can look up to Centenary square and passers by can look down into the amphitheatre and music library. The music library has CDs, DVDS, vinyl, sheet music, performance sets, books and magazines. It also has a piano (I was treated to some Oasis as I wandered round), practice rooms and a recording studio. Free, expert advice on getting into the music business is available and local artists are able to perform in the amphitheatre and smaller Beatbox venue.
Next to the music library is the children’s library. I made for the steep bank of steps at one end of the library where children can gather round for storytelling or to watch films. I watched the first ten minutes of Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, restored to full colour and with a new soundtrack by the band Air.
Up half a level is the Book Browse section where readers can look for fiction, non-fiction and graphic novels and relax in comfy seats and armchairs. You can also borrow ebooks, although not on Kindles. The Reading and Writing web pages support this section well, with book reviews by librarians and writers’ blogs etc. The rear part of the vast foyer is perhaps not the cosiest space for a book browse however.
The first floor of the library is called ‘Business, Health and Learning’. I was really impressed with this part of the library, which offers a free business information, advice and planning service. WiFi and lots of computers on this and other floors give access to essential online services and there are even micro office spaces available for hire by the hour.
The next two floors are devoted to collections ranging from law and government to community information to literature. Many more books are in storage. I could have whiled away many an hour in the French literature section and watching films in the BFI Mediatheque.
Items from the library’s archives, heritage and photography collections can be viewed on the fourth floor, although advance booking is essential. New catalogues are being added to the online catalogue all the time, with the latest addition being the Cadbury Collection Catalogue. There is also an exhibition space where items from the archives are on display. The day I visited they were putting the finishing touches to Library of Cultures, an exhibition showcasing highlights from their collections which is on until April 27th.
Digitised items from the library’s archive and photography collections can also be browsed online or on interactive ‘touch tables’ around the library. The touch tables display documents fanned out into circles that swirl around the screen and are arranged by subject areas such as ‘Park life’ or ‘Home life’ or ‘Buildings’. I liked the way you could see all the documents at a glance but found the touch screen awkward to use – I kept pressing things by mistake and finding different documents popping up all over the panel. Also, you’re supposed to be able to email the documents to yourself from the touch table but somehow I wasn’t able to work out how to do this.
The library has one of the two most important collections in the world of works by and about Shakespeare. A copy of Shakespeare’s first folio was on display on 1 February. The beautiful Shakespeare memorial room on the top floor of the library is a reminder of the passion that both libraries and Shakespeare inspire in the local population: it was originally found in Birmingham’s old Central Library, which was threatened with demolition in the 1970s, causing three groups of conservationists to stage a sit in to ensure the memorial library was preserved for the people of Birmingham.
The 3rd and 7th floors have outdoor terraces with amazing views over the city. There are colourful gardens planted with fruit, vegetables and herbs. Art work and bird boxes caught my eye as I wandered round.
The library has clearly put a lot of work into reaching out to the community and making links with local businesses, artists, writers, schools and cultural institutions. I noticed lots of school groups while I was there. I was also intrigued by an exhibition of poetry and art by local teenagers entitled ‘Who am I?’, exploring the concept of citizenship.
My visit was necessarily brief but I saw the scope of services on offer, browsed some of the collections, explored the building and chatted to some of the librarians. It was inspiring and gave me a better understanding of the changing role of public libraries in our society. It illustrated how the role of public libraries has grown beyond lending books and providing reference services to promoting literacy, enterprise, social services and access to knowledge and culture in the broadest sense. The Library of Birmingham treads a middle ground between tradition and innovation (it is still known as a ‘library’ after all, as opposed to East London’s ‘Idea Stores’) but is striking in scale and vision, particularly given the cuts to public libraries elsewhere in the country. I was impressed by what I saw on my visit and hope that the newly opened library goes from strength to strength in the next few years – it certainly couldn’t come at a better time for local people and the public library sector more generally. To sum up, in the words of Shakespeare, bard of local Stratford-upon-Avon: “ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven”. Long live the Library of Birmingham!