Is it unusual to travel for two hours on a train just to visit a library? Perhaps, if it was an ordinary library but then Birmingham Central Library is anything but ordinary.
Like a giant box of Ferrero Rocher, Christmas present or Islamic garden trellis the ornate aluminium facade of Birmingham Library is impressive and certainly eye-catching, if not also accused of being a little gaudy. Never being one to shy away from matters of taste (in probably not having any myself) and whilst recovering in the lull of post Amsterdam festivities it seemed the right time to pay a visit and reach my own conclusion. Even more appropriate timing too if you consider that it was designed by a Dutch architect, Francine Houben.
Libraries are fantastic places, period. Whether they’re old or new, rundown, in a village, town, city or touring in the back of a bus they're still full of wonder, potential, magic and the source of much delight and contemplation. This is largely due to them being full of books, acting as temples for books, palaces for books. Rarely is it the actual building itself that inspires but more the sheer accumulation of books, the knowledge, histories and stories they hold all in one place. It is the idea of the library, a wealth of collective and shared knowledge that is debatably, in many ways as uplifting as a place of worship (or it can be). Equally, I’d agree that books really do furnish a room and unless you’re incredibly wealthy where else are you going to see thousands of books, that you have the freedom to access, all in one place other than a public library? Is it therefore the books that make the library or can the library itself as a building, a construct, a symbol for knowledge, learning, discovery, discussion, debate etc. be as important (if not more so) than the books themselves? More on that later....
Being in the business of supposedly selling as many books as possible it may seem counterproductive, to those not within the world of bookselling, to speak so highly or fondly of libraries as though we should regard them as the enemy. I’m pretty confident that this is not the attitude of most booksellers and I speak for myself in saying that it is impossible not to have a respect for libraries and what they offer, not to mention unsustainable when anything that encourages and promotes reading can only be considered as a good thing for both parties (economically and ethically). Most libraries I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting have been old (in one sense or another), New York Central Library, the British Library, the Bodleian (Oxford), the Rijksmuseum Library, Bristol library and even Taunton library, which whilst obviously is no way near as old or grand as the Bodleian is still fairly old (despite renovations it’s still the same building)... well in fact, what was the Old Library is now a pub, but that’s a whole other story.
Birmingham library is on the other hand, very shiny and new, opened in September 2013 and costing an estimated 188.8 million! All that money didn’t just go on a lavish exterior, the innards are not only as impressive architecturally, but are where the real workings of the building happen and substance lies. Point already made, libraries are awesome places so imagine (what is claimed to be) the biggest library in Britain and one of the biggest in the world, ten floors including archives, collections a gallery and more. It doesn’t yet live up to the dusty, established neglect that, sort-of lovingly stereotypes many of the aforementioned older libraries, but this is not a criticism.
In fact, with the history of ‘the book’ as a piece of technology having until recently remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years, now being under more threat/pressure to change with the arrival of digital or e-books, there is never a better time to re-kindle (pardon the pun) our investment into books, how we store them share them, access them. What do libraries of the future look like? Do they contain physical books? Do they become data storage banks? And how do any of those changes affect how we interact with those books and/or that information? The building of Birmingham library has almost coincided at the beginning of this unfolding debate and how people choose to use it will influence, in some way, what future role libraries will have.
At some point in the design process for Birmingham library someone must have had the idea that what current libraries are missing are curves, we spent so long trying to create storage solutions suited for housing books that most libraries since the Bodleian onwards has became very square and boxy. The building itself on the outside is very square and made of different levels with outside seating/gardens on three different floors. If not for the overlapping circular motif cladding the building it would be a tiered box. Besides, looking around the rest of Birmingham’s architecture it seems to be in-keeping with a theme of curves throughout from the spotted rotund Selfridges building to the renowned Floozy in the Jacuzzi (don’t take my word for it!).
On a practical level, squares are fine, they’re very utilitarian, but there’s nothing like the sweeping round atrium space inside the library filled with shelves and more shelves of books to break convention and draw one’s attention. Naturally too, many of us didn’t even know what an atrium was until after the millennium when suddenly every corporate building, institute and public space decided that what they lacked in business acumen and reputation could be made up for with an impressive, costly and oversized hole in the middle of their existing building (not mentioning anywhere I may have been in particular...). The bigger the hole it seemed, the more productive and industrious the business...but...uh, back to the library. Thankfully the atrium here works well at opening up the space without being too daunting as it is broken up by levels of escalators that beckon you to explore and see where they lead. It’s like being inside a spaceship...or an airport, depending on your age and imagination. However the promise of being transported both literally by the escalator and in the literary sense by the books themselves is a clever effect.
On each level and away from the traffic central atrium is what you’d come to expect from a library, quiet, rows of shelves, seating areas (really comfy might I add), natural lighting (each floor is surrounded by windows), information terminals and tables but with the added thoughtfulness of having these tables positioned facing windows all around the edges of each floor so people sat can look-out/view over the city acts as an important reminder to the context of the library, the city in which it resides and its people. The outside-in is exploited again with an outside garden/seating area on two different levels with views overlooking the city making the library not only a place of study but a social one.
Whilst books may still be my main reason for going to a library what makes Birmingham Library so special and different is the building itself. It does everything a library should do, whilst being an exciting, modern and intriguing place to visit, to socialise in its own right. Without knowing too much about it, I think that good architectural design should make you want to explore the building and it should inspire without being inaccessible. For these reasons Birmingham Library feels like an inclusive, active, motivational place to be as in different ways so do many other libraries. When a library is designed with this in mind, it enhances the books but also invites an audience of people to use the library’s other resources such as film, music, archives, internet, gallery, cafe etc. What Birmingham library signifies is the last recent significant investment into a public cultural place and if it is successful (as it appears to be so far) then it is an example of what good design and investment can do to encourage and raise the use of all libraries.
In the run-up to and after the opening of Birmingham Library in 2013 there were many closures of local public libraries throughout the country with many still under continued threat of closure since. This isn't new news or even a call to arms, just a thought that perhaps we all need to do more to show the Government and our Local Authorities that our libraries are not merely storage facilities for books but are unique in being one of the only places where anyone can go and choose to be in solitude and study or meet and connect with other people regardless of their age, wealth, religion, race etc. For this reason alone and many more too numerous to mention they should be protected, looked-after and cherished. I sincerely hope Birmingham Library acts as a positive example of what good investment can do and encourage investment in developing future/existing libraries and or cultural spaces. The timing of its build when so many smaller libraries were closed isn't ideal circumstances but its legacy could yet prove beneficial to the future of other libraries.
Going back to my earlier point, if books do become completely digitised in the next hundred years then we shouldn’t be overly concerned, as long as there are people who want to read them and there are people writing then that is a good thing. To read is to be empowered, to be enlightened, to be informed, so it doesn’t matter so much the format that reading takes as to where we access it being the thing of crucial importance. How authors, publishers and booksellers within this industry adapt to promote digital books and make profit from them is the debate that is ongoing. Going back to libraries it is a question of what is the role of a library without books and if those books are digital how do you engage with people and make them aware of what they can access and how? It is difficult to browse a digital database so often things that are often the most useful can be left unseen. I find it reassuring that there is a lot needs to change and improve with how we manage and access digital books before this will/if ever happen.
Until then, there’s the library.
Happy World Book night!