A new library opening prompts twenty-first century questions: what is the role of the library in the digital age? Wherefore books? Who now reads what, where? Despite what you may have heard, the paperless library is still a long way off.
Birmingham’s numerous city libraries over the last 150 years reflect the city’s lack of sentimentality about its past: you can now practically renew libraries over the phone. The current regeneration is nearly complete: you can take a look for yourself from next Tuesday. I had a guided tour last week from Mecanoo’s Patrick Arends and the space is amazing. I’ve been reserving judgement on the building for the last few years, feeling it’s only fair to see the interior of a building before forming an opinion on the building as a whole. I’d also like to see it working as a library before completely deciding. There have been many times since 2007 when it has been hard not to become annoyed by the new building: its encroachment into the civic square (itself very recent) seemed invasive and seeing the townscape of the Centenary Square broken up by the towering new building is a jarring moment. The gradual erosion of civic space is painful too: the land occupied by Central Library is being sold to a private company, as happened with Baskerville House. Awful rumours about there being less shelf space than the previous library were later confirmed. Meanwhile community libraries were losing staff and reducing their service – even brand new libraries like Shard End.
Of course, none of this is mentioned in the introductory presentation and indeed it isn’t the place to discuss it. The LoB team demonstrate their clear excitement about the project, and are now itching to share it. Mecanoo’s creative director Francine Houben describes it as an Ode to the Circle that should be seen as a (yeep) People’s Palace. After we’ve been given some shaky local info (Baskerville House is a “1920s building” and Birmingham is “Europe’s youngest city”) we’re ready to go. Things are still being installed and unpacked but there’s no getting around the fact that this is a wildly ambitious, astonishing space. Ascending through its various caverns, corridors and plateaux really is the journey Houben suggests it is. At no point is it obvious where the building you are, and in a library this is a good thing. As was said of John Madin’s windowless edifice: “a library is a window”. There are many moments I can’t work out what I’m seeing. And it’s a thrill that all this is a library: to put learning, reading and research to Birmingham’s fore in this way, after a long period of being marginalised at the expense of commercial spaces, is a reassuring, hopeful moment.