To Birmingham, then, to see the recently opened Library of Birmingham in the company of my favourite librarian. Its opening still obviously a big event for the people of Birmingham, pouring in through the doors, gazing up (or indeed down) in wonder almost two months on from the opening. It’s the UK’s premier example of the new ‘super library’ concept, Europe’s largest public library, and as such it is a stunning building both inside and out. It has to be said, though, we weren’t as convinced about some of the librarianship, but later for that. Enter, take a few steps in and look up …
It’s one of those views that are practically impossible for civilians to capture in a photograph, but I stick one in here nevertheless. The Book Rotunda is awe-inspiring, a massive piece of interactive sculpture, and the thing is, it’s impossible not to see the books; for all the newness you can’t escape visual echoes of the old British Museum Library. And as you go up on the escalator the building becomes a temple to the book – it’s still about the book – yet at the same time you never lose sight of the fact that it’s a working building, here to be used.
As you can see from the detail on the left, also featuring a small part of the intriguing Lucy McLauchan Replacement installation that can be seen throughout the 2nd and 3rd floors, the books are the stuff of Reference Libraries of old. They make a feature of what would normally be tucked away in basement stacks, and amazingly, there are books on the inside and outside of the Rotunda. A lot of this material is still closed access and almost certainly rarely consulteded – books as decoration almost – but it’s a spectacular sight and feeling.
I’ll pass briefly over the third floor Discovery Terrace with its views south and east, the Amphitheatre you can look down on from the Terrace, The Secret Garden (oh yes!) on the seventh floor with its wonderful views north and west over the city. A glass lift will deliver you to the splendid original dark wood panelled Victorian Shakespeare Memorial Room, sitting in the gold dome atop the building, lovingly taken apart piece by piece and put back together in what is now its third home.
And here’s a view, seen from within the new Library, of Willie the Shake’s Memorial Library’s previous home – the old Central Library, a brutalist concrete monster of a building opened only in 1974, that had become too difficult to maintain and adapt as a functioning library in the twenty-first century. With The Library of Birmingham the architects have achieved their aim of creating “a People’s Palace”. Compare and contrast; one struggles not to use the adjective Stalinist – what were they thinking? And yet apparently there are those lobbying to retain its exterior.
There are various art works throughout the new library. We particularly liked Sue Blackwell’s A midsummer night’s dream, a fine model of a tree sculpted from the pages from various editions of the play, Shakespeare’s words branching and leafing from the trunk. This was in one of the main lending areas on the ground and lower ground floors.
Here in the ‘Book Browse’ areas were the more popular items of lending stock – the fiction, the biographies, some reader-interest-category arranged areas like travel, sport and cookery. It was all a bit confusing and you do wonder how people are going to find their way around, especially if they are looking for something specific; there was minimal guiding. It also struck us that the actual shelf stock in these popular borrowing areas – what was there to choose on the day – was certainly no better than you can find in Milton Keynes Central Library, and the issue statistics will be interesting when things settle down (not that they can ever be considered the be-all and end-all of a library’s existence).
This may seem nit-picking in the grand scheme, but it’s as well to bear in mind that prestige projects need micro-attention too; the well-intentioned yellow spine labelling of the biographies, for example, was unattractive and shoddy, well out of kilter with the building’s aspirations.
The harder-core non-fiction was more orthodoxly arranged – mostly in straight Dewey sequences but with some imaginative tweeks though not necessarily in one sequence – on the first and second floors. You would need to be a regular user to be able to find your way around on your own comfortably. But if the arrangement of the book stock was confusing, heaven help anyone trying to find a particular CD or DVD in the extensive audio-visual library (called ‘Music library’ on all the maps); nor was it amenable to casual browsing. And it’s hard to fathom quite why the graphic novels were hidden away there in the ‘Music Library’ – an outmoded association of the youth with popular music? The large Children’s Library, despite (because of?) its yellow lino floor, struck us as a bit formal too. And the extensive collection of reference monographs – way beyond text books – struck us as being, well, too extensive to justify their potential use, especially when shelved as a separate collection.
For all these reservations, though (I used to be a librarian, but I think they’re legitimate as a seasoned library user too), The Library of Birmingham is a huge achievement for the city, something to be proud of. It’s well worth a look in if you’re in town. They went for a Wow! and they got it. There’s a buzz about the place and plenty of features and facilities – not least the IT facilities – I’ve not mentioned (and/or we managed to miss). Here’s a couple of links where you can find out and see more :
We were dead lucky with the weather
so I’ll leave you seven floors up in The Secret Garden …