Wednesday 4 September 2013

Rewriting the book…

Is a slogan we Birmingham dwellers have become very familiar with over the last two years, as the new Library of Birmingham has been under construction. The publicity has been rife, and speculation over what the new library will actually do for the city has only increased as the building has taken shape and barriers have been removed on the outside to reveal snippets of what we had in store for opening day.

After two years of watching its construction from a distance, finally it was time for the doors to open, and after my various sneak peeks at the exterior – amphitheatre, wild flower meadow, fresh new paving, interconnecting walkway to its neighbour the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, etc. – I took the opportunity to look around inside and relish in the fact that my local lending library was back in action after several months of having to travel out to suburban libraries or make do without all the resources usually available.

My main impression of the new building from outside was that it seemed such a huge space for a library, and indeed, if rumours and speculation are to be believed the stock, in terms of books, at least, has not been increased; certainly for the last couple of years there has been a visible cut back in the number of available copies and variety of books available. The library has been attached to the theatre next door and its sheer size unfortunately dwarfs the theatre which has an architecturally interesting exterior of its own.

I feel there is a clash of the modern and the historical in our new library. The central book rotunda through the building conjures up images of great roman amphitheatres or uber-contemporary shopping malls, as well as seeming to pay homage to another of the city’s iconic buildings, The Rotunda, and the exterior of the library could almost be a cousin to Selfridges, opened this same week ten years ago, exchanging aluminium discs for geometrical mesh.

The interior of the library is breath taking in that way of shiny things, but for me it feels like it is all surface. Neon lights and attractive circular book cases draw the visitor up through the levels, of which there are ten, but stepping back from the book rotunda I did feel a little disappointed to discover stacks of unimaginatively designed shelves, some extremely sparsely filled, and some very cramped together, none having much to say for themselves. The lending library in particular seems to have been crammed into the basement with seemingly no more books, space or seating than the old library had.  

On the whole one could argue that this feels more like a book shop or the swanky corridors of a new museum than a library. There is a lot of wasted space, but perhaps it was designed with tourism and sensation at the forefront rather than the provision of a new and improved functional library. Perhaps this is the future of the British library, bringing all the power and attractiveness of modern technology and surface-level appeal while the books themselves fade into the background.

On the whole, I did not feel awed by my first visit. The anticipation has had me so excited and I thought I would get inside and immediately fall in love with the new space. Perhaps it was because it was too busy to really look around properly or actually use the space – seemingly over 7,000 people visited on opening day, as I did – so I will return in a few days time and see whether I can find some love for the city’s newest icon. I really hope I do. 

Elloise Hopkins.


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