Monday, 23 September 2013

Some thoughts on the new Library of Birmingham

The CILIP AGM provided a golden opportunity to visit the new Library of Birmingham. What a treat was in store!

Set on Centenary Square in central Birmingham, not far from the previous Central Library site, and next to the prestigious Symphony Hall, The Library forms a striking addition to Birmingham's cityscape. Cleverly, it also affords excellent views over Birmingham, making this a building one to see, but also one to see from. I think that this forms a nice inward and outward looking symmetry; strikingly appropriate for a library and public building. This glass and metal quadrilateral and cylinder structure, shrouded with a metal gauze of overlapping metal circles, may not be to everyone's taste, but it is certainly very distinctive. The new Library  has generated much interest, and this striking exterior design must play a significant part in this.

View out from the Lower Ground Floor
Reportedly costing £183M, the library is set over 11 floors, with one of these being below ground level. Tantalising glimpses of the inside of the Lower Ground Floor are provided by an amphitheatre set into the approaching courtyard. This, I think, signals a clear message of openness and accessibility.  All public floors appeared to be well serviced by staff and enquiry points, the former distinctive in their royal blue waistcoats. The people flows through the building are excellent, with signage and guiding working to good effect. Three floors provide no access to the public (but include vital staff working spaces and archival  storage) and I'm sure that a "behind the scenes" tour would be fascinating.

Views within the building
The natural route-ways through the building, including escalators, moving walkways and a glass lift, provide excellent views, both inside and out. Travelling by escalator from the first to fourth floors provides vistas of the central book rotunda, harking back to an age of leather bound tomes arranged in a Victorian style circular library. This is juxtaposed with views outwards to banks of research computers and study spaces,  and through the exterior  windows and metal gauze work to the cityscape beyond.

The library has many attractions from a collection and service perspective. A fabulous children's  library (screams of excitement emanating from this large self contained space on the lower ground floor whilst I was there),  comprehensive collections, including local heritage and archives research services, a business information service, an impressive cartography library, a British Film Institute Mediatheque, and the Shakespeare Memorial Collection. Fantastic music collections were supplemented with music practice spaces and a piano for public use (an idea borrowed  from Cardiff Public Library?). The library also provides an extensive range of study spaces, formal and informal, including some excellent use of interesting contemporary seating. So there will be much to draw in the information-hungry public for many years to come.

However the building also boasts a number of attractions and these will serve well in enticing non-library users into the building and thence hopefully to engage with the service. The library plays host to two cafes, providing sustenance for the body in addition to the mind.  Two balcony gardens offer great relaxation spaces with superb views out over Birmingham, especially the Level 7 "Secret Garden". These are also valuable green spaces within the otherwise severely concrete and glass predominated central Birmingham zone, in addition to providing strong reminders to the origins of our foods. The Library also plays host to an interesting a varied range of permanent and temporary art works, captivating and engaging with regular and first time visitors alike.
Third Floor Discovery  Terrace Garden

7th Floor Secret Garden

Without doubt a star attraction is the Level 9 Shakespeare Memorial Room; an original feature from the city's Victorian library designed by Henry Chamberlain. This beautiful wood panelled room, with decorative plaster vaulted ceiling,  originally held the Birmingham Shakespeare Collection. This collection  is now safely held in the archives, but the Memorial Library provides a fascinating showcase for other pertinent Shakespeare related materials from the general collections. This room harks back to an age of philanthropy and a time when Birmingham grew in significance and size through trade, industry and education. It is therefore extremely fitting that it has been incorporated into this stunning new public building.

The library also boasts a number of  named rooms and areas, including: the Beatbox, chill-out lounge, Brainbox, Contemplation Room, and Discovery Gallery. Whether these will endure, or will invite non-traditional users into the Library, remains to be seen. These spaces can be used flexibly for the future and supplement a number of bookable study, meeting and training rooms. There is also an impressive studio theatre (venue for the CILIP AGM) which appeared to be supervised by the adjacent Rep theatre staff.

One 7 or 8 year old boy, clearly becoming increasing excited as he ascended through the building, declared to his mother "I feel like Charlie in the chocolate factory". His enthusiasm was shared by the majority of visitors. 

To this professional's eyes there appeared to be much cause for excitement in this public library building. The Library provides vibrant, pleasant space in which to work, read or relax; and a fantastic new focal point for this progressive city.  One can usually nitpick or criticise. Is the placement of fiction collections and the children's service on the lower ground floor really the best place? Most people on entering a multi-story building, will quite naturally "gravitate" upwards. There is therefore a danger that they may miss collections and services  that are of most relevance to them? But, this is my only concern.

On the third Saturday since opening,  the Library of Birmingham continued to welcome huge crowds, with much genuine interest and excitement from the public. There were extensive queues for the lifts to the upper floors, and constant streams of enthralled people on the escalators. One 7 or 8 year old boy, clearly becoming increasing excited as he ascended through the building, declared to his mother "I feel like Charlie in the chocolate factory". His enthusiasm was shared by the majority of visitors. Whether captivated by the traditional library collections and services, or by the architecture, space, cafes, balcony views, this building and service certainly has much potential to enthral, engage, motivate and encourage the user community. Like many of the best libraries, I'm sure that it will go on to play valued and key  roles in the creative, commercial, educational and leisure achievements of its users. Indeed, as Brian Gambles (Assistant Director - Culture, Birmingham City Council) indicated at the CILIP AGM, it already seems to be fulfilling more than could have been envisaged. The Library has done much to provide Birmingham with a renewed sense of pride, energy and identity. How many of us can truly say that about our library buildings and services?

Su Blackwell's A Mid Summer Night's Dream (2013)
on display in the Library.
The Library of Birminghan provides a space for inspiration, sharing,
culture, learning and discovery.

Photographs are by the author.


  1. Very jealous! The library looks wonderful and I can't wait to visit one of those cafes...

  2. Thanks Sam. I think a visit to the new library will be high on many librarians / library workers agendas, and quite rightly so. I hope that you manage a visit soon!