Rewriting the Book: the New Library of Birmingham

Ralph Adam: Journalist

Book Rotunda credit Christian Richters

“Libraries are a thing of the past like ration books and Rod Hull”.

“The days of the local libraries are, sadly, finished”.

“Antiquated and totally redundant”.

“Surely it’s only benefit scroungers and single mothers scrounging benefits who use libraries anyway? And their children don’t need education, or free internet access”.

(comments from a BBC discussion list about libraries).

When did you last see guards having to hold back the crowds trying to enter a library?

We read much about the death of the public library, but far less on the many innovative openings and re-launches. Even new national libraries are being built – though few acquisitions policies match those of Tajikistan’s (where reports suggest residents have been ‘encouraged’ to donate their private collections as an alternative to losing their jobs!).

Europe’s biggest library, the Library of Birmingham (LOB), has sparked interest worldwide. Opened in September 2013 by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot for daring to campaign for girls’ education, it is becoming a major cultural destination. Malala, in her address, said, “pens and books are the weapons that defeat terrorism”.

Located in Centenary Square, Birmingham’s new ‘cultural heart’ and part of the Corporation’s Big City Plan (claimed to be Britain’s biggest-ever city centre regeneration project), it is hoped that, with its important special collections, the library will attract 3?m. visitors annually and, of course, many more online. The idea was to create a debibliophied library: its Director, Brian Gambles (who received an MBE in the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to libraries) emphasised the need for “an open, accessible and welcoming space – a democratic space….” In that, they have certainly succeeded. The outside of a library encapsulates its content, rather as a jacket does a book. Perhaps the LOB’s design is really an ad for the ‘new’ Birmingham?

A new People’s Palace

Francine Houben of Mecanoo, a Dutch practice, won the international competition and was selected as the lead architect, in conjunction with the engineering consultancy Buro Happold. Construction was by Carillion, while Capita Symonds were the project managers. The plan was to create a ‘people’s palace’ – a place of learning and community, rather than a traditional library. The budget was £193m. (though only £186m.was actually spent). The building covers 35 000m? (of which around 7 000m? is taken up by the rebuilt repertory theatre and ancillary features). A recessed circular performance space in Centenary Square is also intended to “engage the public with the library programme via a public entertainment venue”. The LOB’s theme, which appears on much of its excellent literature and publicity is “Rewriting the book”. Its first major photography exhibition was punningly entitled Reference Works – but does it still? Not, according to the Director, when asked about the future of library reference services.

Architectural features are frequently the main focus of reviews. But architects are artists. They often have little concern for the users of the buildings they design; more important is the beauty of their vision. And few people ask: “what is the point of a library?”. Jonathan Glancey in the Telegraph compared the LOB to a pile of enormous, geometrically-arranged birthday presents, gift-wrapped in gold and black, surmounted by a gold hatbox with everything tied with ribbons adorned with interlocking black and silver circles. Notice – his review talks only of the architecture; no mention of the library’s content or services. Metro did, at least, comment on “the library’s designers being more concerned by its appearance than its practical use.”

So, what is it like?

A spacious entrance area (shared with the theatre) welcomes ‘customers’ to the library’s ten floors, The design is spectacular: a transparent, light-filled façade, laced with delicate metal filigree and composed of interlocking circles reminds us of Birmingham’s industrial past. At its heart, and zigzagged by escalators over four balcony levels, is the book rotunda carrying 400,000 volumes (a further 600,000 are on closed access – and, as yet, apparently uncatalogued). Natural daylight and ventilation have been emphasised.   Unusual features of the library are its two tranquil garden terraces (to help people learn about food and its literature), children’s spaces and a panoramic viewing gallery on the roof (a ‘secret’ garden – ideal for staff parties, but one of the highest points in the city and open to all). It also features a study centre, (plus spacious carrels within the reading rooms), a substantial music library, a BFI-backed mediatheque, community health centre and the archives, as well as cafes and much lounge space.

Brian Gambles says that: “it will become a centre of learning, information and culture designed to handle 10 000 people a day. The library’s influence will extend beyond the physical boundaries of the building, its global digital presence allowing the public to access content from anywhere in the world.” That seems to have succeeded: in its first eight months the Library welcomed over 2m. visitors (50-60,000 a week).

This is Birmingham’s fourth central library. The original, opened in 1865, burned down fourteen years later with most of the reference stock, including the Shakespeare collection, destroyed. A club was formed locally to collect donations in the hope of recreating the historic collection. It excelled and the new library, built in 1882, found itself with one of the world’s strongest collections of the Bard’s works. A specially-built Shakespeare Memorial Room was designed to hold it. Later, when this library was itself replaced by a brutalist concrete 1970s building (which soon became ‘the place to hang out!’ – but never received its marble exterior or underground bus station’) the room was dismantled and stored. It has now been recreated as a beautiful feature of the LOB.

Birmingham claims to be Europe’s ‘youngest’ city (25% of the population are under 25) and the library is very much geared to the young. There is no ‘silence rule’ – it is acknowledged that many users attracted by the new services also want to use the library as a place to meet their friends.

The LOB has had in instant impact: the Birmingham Mail’s report on the opening was headed: Crowds flock to the “breathtakingly wonderful” Library of Birmingham.   Visitors will have noticed the massive queue at the entrance, as if the city’s residents had, at last, found something to do on a Saturday afternoon: take a stroll around their library! Even now, many visitors are there purely to sightsee. Go to the French Trip Advisor, for example, and you will find such comments as; “sublime!”, “don’t go for the books – go for the view”, “the best library ever” and “great staff.”.

A users’-eye view

As a heavy user of London’s libraries (which can be overly-bureaucratic), it is great to find one that is easy to join (it took less than a minute to get a four-year membership) and has superb computer and wi-fi facilities (at first PC access was unlimited; now it is restricted to nine hours per week – all of which can be used in one day). In the early part of the year, when the London-Birmingham rail fare tends to be 25p, the LOB is a viable option! Unlike many libraries, you feel you are getting a real welcome as soon as you enter. There is much explanatory material: lots of leaflets emphasising staff expertise and the range of resources (including free legal and intellectual property advice) in a clear, encouraging style. Leaflet topics range from excellent guides for newcomers (Introduction, Knowledge & discovery and Study & research) to Health & well-being, Music & film, Young people (covering the Soundbox studio and rehearsal facilities), the business information and planning service and lots more. There is, of course, also a visitors’ guide and floor plan (much needed!).

It is nice to find large, free lockers in a library to save carrying heavy bags around. The reference section is disappointingly small; I found the staff I tested poor at answering general questions or at directing me to sources, such as the OED or the Statesman’s yearbook. The bookstacks are high (even at 6’ I found some hard to reach) and there have been many complaints about the inaccessibility of research resources. One problem is that much of the large reserve stock (the ‘stack’, containing more than half the library’s total book stock , has been inaccessible due to lack of essential equipment (mobile lift platforms to enable staff to access resources safely ) which has not arrived. In mid-June two members of staff told me they had been banned from discussing stack access and cataloguing! More than one paper has suggested F for farce as a suitable classification for the story!

Staff are not always easy to find – and can be very busy. Although staff claim that their numbers have been cut substantially, figures suggest that the totals are the same as for the old (but smaller) library.

Asked about his own favourite libraries (his perfect one doesn’t yet exist!), Brian Gambles named Peckham, Aarhus and Seattle, among others. Perhaps, soon the Library of Birmingham will be everyone’s favourite!

(Photograph Christian Richter)