Birmingham’s new library

Phil: Candice and I don’t agree on everything.Birmingham Library Our latest area of dispute is Birmingham’s brand new library building.

Posting on Facebook that I was, “Off to Brum for giving blood and seeing if that new library is as ugly on the inside as it is on the outside.”, within minutes I get a response, “Hey – I quite like it ! Certainly raises brums profile.” from our proud posh Brummie.

Dear reader, I leave it to you to decide who is correct here by reference to the picture on the right of this blog. The building is question is the boxy yellow and white one covered with horrid ironwork. Personally, I think the old library, a brutalist concrete structure, is far better looking. The new one would be all right if they left off the nailed on metalwork – it’s cuboid and that’s fine. Stop pretending it’s square, as Huey Lewis once said, this is hip. Be proud of it!

Anyway, this didn’t stop me having a look. Whatever I think about the design, this is a landmark building and it certainly raises the profile of the city in a good way. While everyone got very excited about the Bullring shopping centre a few years ago, I rather like the idea that the most impressive building in the place is a public one devoted to learning.

I remember visit the old library out of curiosity a couple of years ago. The interior was a bit confusing something made worse by the place being a lending and reference library supporting 3 nearby universities. Eventually, I found my way to the engineering section. Something drew me there and when I arrived, it was full of students who looked like they fitted the place. If you imagine a stereotype engineering student, then I was in a room full of them. You can bet there were plenty of journeys home being made later via Games Workshop or Maplin…

Book rotunaAnyway, I recalled the huge collection of Haynes workshop manuals on the shelves so when visiting the new place I decided to see if these had made the move, or been conveniently forgotten as not being suited to a world of iPuds and fancy coffee. For those not in the know, a Haynes manual is what you buy when your car gets poorly and you fancy having a go at fixing it. Their natural habitat is the garage, covered in oil and perused whilst drinking tea from a proper mug.

Heading into the new building, the entrance features a coffee bar, reception and an odd wooden building nailed together to host some sort of learning experience. To get into the heart of the building, you jump on a long escalator with light up sides. It looks space age.

Rising up, you enter the “Book rotunda” and circular room with shelves arround the sides. On these are lots of books that I suspect won’t be refered to much. City council minutes, that sort of thing. Lots of identical bindings but like a country house library, these are really for show. They look good though.

The real business is to be found in large rooms off the side of this. Miles of shelves radiate out from the centre. Beyond these are desks and tables for readers to work at with large windows providing a view over the city.

Greasey car fixing goodnessBest of all, right at the top of the escalator, the first books you find in the building, are the Haynes manuals! The city is proud of its engineering heritage after all (I know, fixing a car isn’t hard-core engineering but it’s not far off for most of us). 30 feet of shelves full of greasy goodness for automotive tinkerers.

Carrying on upwards, one of the exciting features is a balcony overlooking Chamberlin Square. Cleverly set up with space for a bar and even a footspa, while sitting amongst the plants will be lovely on a sunny day, this is an ingenious space that can be rented out in the evenings for product launches and events that will help to fund the building. After all, if you have a prestigious structure, why not squeeze the asset by renting it to people with cash to spend? I’m sure there will be puritans getting all poo-faced about this but to my mind if you can make the library a desirable civic building then that has got to be a good thing hasn’t it?

Anyway, above the balcony is more reference space, this time for photos, catalogues and maps. On the side of this is a Secret Garden, a smaller version of the balcony and offering (to my mind) superior views over the city. Being on the side of the building, you can see the hills in the distance as well and glimpses of the canals that are so much a part of the history.

At the top of the building is the Skyline Gallery, a glass walled room pointing at the city centre. A giant iPad thing can be sued to identify different buildings and look up some useful facts on each. Not just the old buildings either. Brum is rightly proud of more modern heritage such as the 1973 Alpha Tower and even very recent developments.

Shakespere Memorial LibraryThe jewel in the crown for tourists though, is the Shakespeare Memorial Library, a wooden panelled room that is in its second home in this new building. An odd inclusion in the midst of such modernity, the contrast is rather pleasing. I suspect it’s a bit of work in progress as the glass covered shelves contain various works by the Bard, many more books about the Bard and about 150 years of the magazine Punch.

Of course, there is more, but that was enough for one visit. I haven’t plumed the depths – there are a couple fo subterranean floors to explore. The place is only starting to get into its stride – you have to be escorted to the top floors as demand is so high (100,000 visitors in the first week and 10,285 books borrowed in the same time) at the moment. Give it 6 months and things will start to settle down.

The Library of Birmingham cost £189m. Had it not been signed off before the collapse of the economy, no doubt the result would have been a good deal less impressive. Despite the cost, TV channels carrying out vox-pops have found it harder than they had expected to find people who claim it is a waste of money.

Brum viewBrummies seem proud of their new library and well they might be. I still think it’s ugly on the outside but inside, where the action is, it’s fantastic. You can tell I’m not alone, the place was home to several people just wandering around in awe and wielding cameras as though they were at a major tourist attraction.

Birmingham now has two iconic buildings, the other is Selfridges store, but that is just a shop (I suspect this is another area we’ll disagree on but then I’ve never been part of that place, unlike Candice) and does the normal shop like things. With the new library, the architects have produced something stupendous. If you need an excuse to visit Birmingham, then this is it.

Who says libraries and books are old-fashioned and boring?

Visit the Library of Birmingham Website.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Birmingham’s new library

  1. Excellent review. The design is rather retro 50’s rather than 21st century but it does look nice all lit up. It’s going to be there for a long time so the price tag will seem quite cheap in a 100 years time and it’s good to see that the tax payer’s money is being spent on a worthwhile project.

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