Inside the Library of Birmingham

Inside the Library of Birmingham

Anticipating the new Library of Birmingham

It is not often I agree with Prince Charles' arch-conservative views on architecture, but he may have been onto something when he said the Birmingham Central Library looks like "a place where books are incinerated, not kept". A concrete inverted ziggurat in the Brutalist style which was completed in 1974—designed by Birmingham-born architect John Madin based on the Boston, Massachusetts, City Hall—from the outside the Central Library bears a resemblance to a run down multi-storey car park you might think twice about leaving your car in, or the insalubrious housing estate in the recent film "Attack the Block".

Yet, the Prince of the Realm and other detractors will not have Madin's building to kick around much longer. In 2013, the Central Library will move a few hundred yards away to its new location in a gleaming, high-tech, 330,000 sq ft "library of the future", an enterprise originally budgeted at £193m (astonishingly now £4m under budget): making it the biggest public library project in British and European history.

Rebranded the Library of Birmingham, the new space is envisioned as a "shop window for the city and culture of the city", says Brian Gambles, assistant director, culture (his official city council title, but he is essentially the chief librarian and man in charge of the project). "It is about the celebration of learning and knowledge, and how knowledge transfer can take place in a very public realm."

Centenary Square

That shop window will certainly be prominent. The new library will be on the busy Centenary Square, one of the highest points in the city, 10 stories tall, topped by a gold dome—metaphorically and literally a shining cultural beacon. The Library of Birmingham will certainly redefine the notion of what a library is—it will be joined to the next door Birmingham Rep theatre, and the two organisations will share a reception desk. Other features include an outside amphitheatre, a studio theatre, rooftop terraces, cafés, business centres and the Shakespeare Memorial Room, originally designed for the city's Victorian library, which will be a space for events and activities.

And yes, it will also have books; over two million of them, a point Gambles is keen to make. "I firmly believe that the design of the library will reflect the book as a physical object, learning the skill of literacy and the joy of reading as an inspirational activity is at the centre of the library in the 21st century, as it was in the 19th and 20th."

Yet the whole purpose of replacing the Central Library was not because it was arguably an eyesore, but that the creaking building was making it difficult to meet the needs of modern library users. Staying relevant in an age of nationwide trends of declining issues (for adult books) and visitor figures was a crucial part of the philosophy behind the new library. "To say [the Central Library] only caters to one type of user would be desperately unfair and wrong, but it does have a fairly monoculture feel to it—it caters to people who want to study in relative quiet and more or less on their own. We're trying to create a feel which suits a more relaxed style of social learning, as well as that private study for people who prefer to sit at desks."

Information delivery

Gambles talks of content and efficiencies in "information delivery". They don't feel like buzzwords, but more a forthright strategy of engagement for a service that, in the era of closures and cuts, has to continually prove its worth. "We need to highlight and encourage the process of learning," he says. "That is going to come from information and literary sources, but also other sources, not just books, but music, film and many other things as long as they have an engagement with ideas. Books are one of the greatest means of capturing and communicating ideas, but they are not the only means."
Much of this information delivery will be electronic, which Gambles believes is in its infancy. He says that publishers and libraries have not "fully got our heads around" the role of e-books in the library of the future. "I'm not sure we have the right business model yet. Where we seem to be at is doing a little enhanced progression from the status quo; we're trying to construct a business model charging for e-books as if they are surrogates for printed books and I don't think it works, really.

"From the library point of view we may be trying to create a role for ourselves as middlemen, when the whole point of the Amazon business model is to get rid of the middleman. Or to use the middleman in a slightly different way. We have to be quite careful on the role of e-books, and not hang too much on that. If we keep our focus on the world of learning, the world of ideas, the world of imagination, then we will be much better off."

When the Library of Birmingham opens in 2013 it will be a project 15 years in the making. In 1998, Gambles and his team initially wanted a renovation of the Central Library from the council, but were challenged to be more ambitious and look at a brand new library. After many consultations, costings, planning meetings and a change of government in the city council, the plan was given the go-ahead in 2007.

Gambles admits it was fortunate to get the ball rolling before the economic crash which, of course, public libraries are now feeling the brunt of as closures roll across the country.  Birmingham has dodged that bullet, with the council saying it will not close any of its 41 libraries, although Gambles notes: "We have to meet our fiscal responsibilities and that involves some hard decisions."

Library cuts

Of the library cuts in general, he wonders why libraries are on the front line, pointing out that public libraries receive a relatively small piece of the UK government coffers. "If you removed every single public library from the budget, it wouldn't affect the budget crises we are trying to resolve. From a budget point of view libraries aren't that significant. From a point of view of their contribution to a community and health of a local community, they are enormously important."

In the next two years Gambles will be embarking on more community building—reaching out to form partnerships with agencies, universities, high-tech firms, health providers and businesses. This, he argues, is a key element of the 21st-century library. Yes, some of these partnerships will be almost purely philanthropic, but most will be organisations that want to tap into the library's considerable resources, its visitor base—projections are for four million visitors in the first year of the new library—and to be part of Birmingham's "knowledge transfer". Two deals already confirmed are with the British Film Institute, which will provide the library with rare archive material, and a collaboration with literature development agency Writing West Midlands to ramp up the Birmingham Book Festival.

Gambles reckons that by 2013 the library will have "two to three dozen" partnerships in place.  Some of which, hold onto your hat, will have a commercial interest. It is one area that Gambles is keen to explore. "We have to be more commercially successful and have a mindset that some of the assets we deal with have commercial value. Although I know there is a slight propensity for the library service to treat commerce and money as a bit dirty as if it is for somebody else."

The commerciality, of course, does have a means to an end. "It is important that we are not just building a library but we are part of the regeneration of Birmingham," he says. "We are part of a legacy contribution to the city that will endure for many decades. And hopefully the culture of the city will define the library. And that's something to be quite proud of, really."


This feature was first published in The Bookseller in June 2011.