As I’m sure you will know, the new Library of Birmingham opened yesterday, amid much press fanfare and a lovely opening speech by Malala Yousafzai, the text of which you can read here. I am partial to a good library, so I went along to have a look, and I must admit I was impressed. I spent many hours in the old library, and the contrast is amazing: the light and open space of this library is remarkable, and I hope will prove inspiring to those who visit it. Spread across nine floors, the Library is reaching for the sky, both metaphorically and literally. The view from the terrace is wonderful, and the design on the outside casts beautiful shadows across the interior.
I didn’t have time to explore as much as I would have liked, but will return again and again, I think, and am looking forward to researching there. From the lending library, with comfortable chairs to encourage readers to relax and browse, to the desks and private study rooms dotted around the upper floors for those needing to work, it is a space which seems to encourage intellectual activity. Travelling up through the building on a travelator, one is surrounded by enormous circles of books (based on the British Library’s space) and pieces of specially-commissioned art, and the effect is awe-inspiring. Yet, as my colleague said, it is both vast and intimate as a space, which seems appropriate for a library (I could draw parallels between the boundless limits and yet personal voice of books, and the space of the library, but perhaps this is taking it too far!)
The building is a great example of what a library might be: focused on books but also on learning and culture in a wider sense, perhaps aided by the building’s incorporation of the Rep Theatre. The children’s section includes ‘Middle Earth’, as well as a Chill-out Lounge and Beatbox, while upper floors include an art gallery and film-viewing booths, as well as a café and the Shakespeare Memorial Room, reconstructed to match the original room with elaborate ornamentation, and a fascinating range of Shakespearean collections. The Library is running a great range of events to make the most of their remarkable facilities.
Of course, the crucial question is what it will be like as a space in which to study, research and write. The reference collections there are good, and I often recommended students to visit the old library for this reason, and with the help of the floor plan and the online catalogue it shouldn’t be difficult to find things. The spaces for study include private rooms and public tables, as well as the balcony where one can read and relax, and I am looking forward to returning.
Birmingham has for so long had a bad reputation, for a lack of culture (quite undeserved, with the Rep and other theatres, Symphony Hall and other concert venues, the Museum and Art Gallery, and of course several universities) but this Library should show how serious Birmingham is about learning and culture. It is a monument to the benefits of culture, just as the Victorian museums and other public buildings were – a statement of intent from the council and people of Birmingham that a high priority should be placed on the education, culture and pleasure of the inhabitants. It is also even more significant: Malala said in her speech that world peace can be developed through reading; books are a weapon in the war against terrorism. The more one reads, the more one understands, and Malala is right: through books lie the path to mutual, cross-cultural understanding.