Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The new 'Library of Birmingham'

In Birmingham at the weekend for the Birmingham half marathon, I finally got around to making a trip I had been planning for a while: a visit to the new 'Library of Birmingham' in Centenary Square (Europe's largest public library). Opened in September, it is an incredible building -- and brilliantly incorporates the demands of modern living (cafes, internet access, public spaces for discussion) with a wonderful selection of open-access literature.

Even more excitingly, it houses in its entirety the original Shakespeare Memorial Room from the Victorian Birmingham library; this was reconstructed in full and now sits atop the new library (in the golden ring on the picture below), on the 9th floor. It is well worth the climb to the top, and reminds us that Shakespeare (so often associated with London these days) was a Midlander after all...

The library inside is phenomenal, and not unlike the interior design of the Selfridges department store in Birmingham; but somehow the space suits the worship of books as much as Selfridges does the worship of shopping... My favourite aspect of the design is the way that the beautiful first editions owned by the library, as well as rarer collections, are integrated into the library walls -- so that although they are on display, they are cleverly protected by the use of (near-invisible) glass partitions. (Something similar has been done in the British Library in London). This manages to give pleasure to bibliophiles while ensuring that the very modern space nods to its literary heritage.

The library also houses regular exhibitions, and stages events for children; and while I was there (on a Sunday afternoon) it had free film screenings. The building of the library was controversial, not least for the sums of money spent on it -- there were debates about the usefulness of the building to the whole community -- and the design is an acquired taste. But (and I can say this as a Midlander) Birmingham has never been a beautiful city, so why not build something new and remarkable? I have included a couple of pictures below so that you can judge for yourself...

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