The £189m Library of Birmingham was officially opened last week by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating women’s rights. As part of the opening ceremony, the inspirational teenager placed her copy of Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist in the library – the last book to go on the shelves. The first, in case you were wondering, was The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
“Books are precious” said Malala. “Some books travel with you back centuries, others take you into the future. Some take you to the core of your heart and others take you into the universe. It is written that a room without books is like a body without a soul. A city without a library is like a graveyard.”
The Library of Birmingham, prior to its eco friendly redesign, was once described by Prince Charles as looking like a place where books would be incinerated rather than read. So the transformation of the building, designed by Dutch architects Mecanoo, couldn’t have come sooner. It is now a weighty 31,000 sq meters, which is around 20% bigger than its previous incarnation, making it the largest public library in Europe and home to one million books, although only 400,000 of these are directly available to the public.
The ten-level Library shares a flexible studio theatre seating 300 people with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Sited in Centenary Square alongside The REP and Symphony Hall, it is hoped it will form a new cultural heart for the city and attract tourism. The Library is a flagship project of Birmingham City Council’s 20-year Big City Plan and an example of how libraries can once more become a focal part of the community.
One way it has managed this is by thinking of the library as a cultural hub rather than a building full of dusty shelves. It contains a world-class collection of archives, photography and rare books, such as the Shakespeare Memorial Room which includes copies of the Bard’s First, Second, Third and Fourth Folio editions, as well as offering space for more digitally literate readers through digital display tablets, screens and iPads. There’s also access to an amphitheatre, studio theatre, exhibition gallery and sound-proofed music practice rooms, all of which suggests that the library is as much as about performance and creative expression as it is learning.
“We had a long debate about whether to call this a ‘library’ or not, the whole idea of the ‘library’ concept needs reinventing,” said Brian Gambles, director of the project. “The business model of books and information doesn’t add up any more, this is really a knowledge hub – not that we wanted to call it that.”
Nottingham is a tiny city in comparison to Birmingham and so it would be naïve to expect renovation and investment on a similar scale. But there’s nothing stopping our libraries becoming objects of beauty through simple renovations, such as larger glass windows that are more inviting to the passing public. Thinking of the library as a source of knowledge and education rather than just books is another worthy principle to adhere to and costs nothing. For example, allowing drama groups to have free use of unused rooms to practice in could be exchanged for one free dinner time performance. This in turn could be linked to a campaign about theatre books stocked within the library. All it requires is a little imagination and innovation, as well as an awareness of your local community.
The danger of creating such a beautiful spectacle such as the Library of Birmingham is that smaller libraries in adjoining towns may start to lose users which will enable the council to justify closing them down and selling off the land to pay off debts accumulated for this very grand design. This means that less mobile readers (elderly and disabled) or the unemployed (unable to afford the luxury of bus trips into town) will once again lose out on a valuable local amenity. But for once let’s hold back on the scepticism and congratulate Birmingham for giving the library meaning again and keep our fingers crossed that Dawn of the Unread will be able to do similar for Nottingham.
Library of Birmingham, Centenary Square, Broad Street, Birmingham, B1 2ND. Tel: 0121 242 4242
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