Books first

The first thing that impresses on entering the Library of Birmingham is the prominence of books.

This may seem odd to say, but of course in the run-up to this week's opening, a lot of the talk about the Library of Birmingham has been about its digital swishiness and  how it is fit for the 21st century: "the library of the future" and all that. Yet the main feature of the library—the wham/bam architectural highlight—is the central hub which stretches up its five floors all filled, dominated, by books. From this hub on each floor stretch, like spokes on a wheel, long rows of bookshelves.

Walking through the library before the opening was something of a shock because even though it was filled with new fixtures, millions of pounds of expensive IT kit, never-before-used desks, it still had that library smell. You know the one I mean, that comfortable aroma of old books.

Why the LoB works is its integration. It IS digitally swish—there are computers everywhere, multi-media booths, business centres, the eLibrary launch was as important as the launch of the physical building—but it all fits seamlessly with the books.

And there is the external integration. At the opening ceremony, architect Francine Houben called libraries the "cathedrals of the 21st century". This is the case for LoB if we are talking about a central meeting place for the people. LoB towers about Centenary Square, is physically connected to the Birmingham rep and its lower ground floors stretch out underneath towards the middle of the square and open up to passersby. This is a building that connects to the public, reaching out to lure people in.

Cathedrals, of course, were made to last. The LoB's predecessor, the Birmingham Central Library, was opened in 1974 and just 30 years later was a relic. LoB director Brian Gambles has said that opening of the doors on the new library is just "the beginning of phase one" and has stressed its flexibility; the space can be modified to adjust to the changing needs of future patrons. Let us hope it this will prove to be the case, and that the management of the library continues to be far sighted for many years to come. Enough to justify the £189m costs.

Ah yes, the much discussed price tag, which has mostly gone along the lines of  "is the price worth it in these times of austerity?" Let's first leave aside the "in these times" part of the question, which is a slightly intellectually dishonest, journalists whipping up an angle story. The LoB was a capital expenditure agreed before the credit crunch hit; it is therefore a historic expenditure, not linked to current austerity. One might as well ask why Government spent so much on the construction of the Palace of Westminster.

Gambles said the price tag was equivalent to "2.2 Gareth Bales"—and certainly few would argue that the LoB is "worth" far more than a high-priced footballer. The question of worth is difficult and one could reel off a number of things which the government wastes money on (the LoB is 11.3 Trident missiles, for example), but perhaps we should compare the LoB to another capital expenditure: the new Wembley Stadium.

Wembley cost around £800m (not weighted for inflation); for that, 4.2 LoBs could have been built. If the projections are correct, the LoB should get 3.5m visitors this year; that's about one million more people than attended Wembley events in 2012 (and that in an Olympic football/Champions League Final year). One goes to Wembley mainly to be disappointed by the national football team or further enrich a rock star. Of those 3.5m visitors to the library this year, however, there will be people researching projects, doing homework, using the library to find work, improve their careers, start new businesses and generally contribute to the economic and cultural health of the nation.  

Worth it? Yep, every penny.

Tom Tivnan is The Bookseller's features editor