Bliss in Birmingham

On the train from London up to the reception for the new Library of Birmingham last night (2nd September), I was remembering a squabble I had with my English teacher. She told us that the library at our sixth form college in Scunthorpe was being redesigned and there would be more computers and fewer books.

"But libraries should be for books," I said.

"Libraries should be for resources," she snapped back at me. She was rather the opposite of those inspiring teachers you read about in novels but 23 years after that conversation it remains a hot topic.

“Will there be any books in the new Library of Birmingham?” A friend had asked me earlier, “Or just millions of computers?”

I can report back that there are 800,000 books in the library and no shortage of computers.

Seen in the early evening sun, the Library of Birmingham is a beautiful building—the photos don’t quite do it justice—surrounded by other beautiful buildings in Centenary Square, the city’s most important public open space. It is estimated that 13 million people will walk past the site annually.

“I didn’t know Birmingham was so beautiful,” I said to one of my new friends.

“People don’t.”

The speeches yesterday evening were packed full of an appealing civic pride, of the desire to provide a cultural centre, of the joys of partnership and collaboration and were punctuated by spontaneous and heartfelt bursts of applause.

I was introduced to a lawyer who volunteers for the Library of Birmingham Trust. She took me up to the stunning terrace and pointed out a tall building called The Cube just across from us. “That top glass bit is a Marco Pierre White restaurant. Obviously not everyone can afford to go up there so I love that anyone can come up to this terrace and stay and enjoy the views or read a book. And look at the cranes. Cranes are a great sign in a city.”

I wandered off on my own. The children’s library is amazing and I could have loitered in adult fiction for hours. There’s a secrets library, a charming area with scraps of paper and the encouragement to write down a secret and hide in a book which made my inner child explode with joy. There’s audio, large print, a dedicated section for Quick Reads: “Literacy is the key to knowledge,” said one of the speakers. I was impressed with the selection of bang up-to-date new novels.

Things are far from perfect in library world. The books versus resources debate continues, e-lending poses numerous thorny challenges and there are wide concerns that in an era of painful public sector cuts, large-scale buildings like this one will lead inevitably to less provision of smaller scale services. What I do know for sure is that this building and the people in it excited me both personally and professionally. As a reader, as a parent, as the sort of person who would like to run a twitter book club in a public space or volunteer to help a group of less confident adult readers, or simply have a bookish environment to take children to and meet friends, I was smitten.

We’ve come a long way since the time when you were frowned at for making a noise in a library, said one of the speakers. This is a sociable and enticing space that people feel infectiously passionate about. Today the library will be officially opened by Malala Yousafzai who was treated in Birmingham after being shot by the Taliban for wanting to go to school.

“Could there be a more fitting person to open our library?” said one of the speakers to the applause-filled room.

Decidedly not. I can’t wait to go there again and find out what happens next in the story of the Library of Birmingham.

Cathy Rentzenbrinck is project director at Quick Reads and new fiction previewer at ‪The Bookseller.