3 September 2013 saw the opening of the largest public library in Europe: the new Library of Birmingham. It has received a good deal of media interest – and rightly so: it’s a splendid achievement. Its stylish interior is reminiscent of the old British Library Reading Room, and the building boasts not one but two roof terraces, both of which give superb views of the city, and provide enticing places to read on fine days. Have a look for yourself.
This week I was interviewed about the new building and its place in the history of Birmingham’s libraries for BBC Midlands Today, and here I set out a few thoughts prompted by that.
Birmingham’s new library is a triumph of long-term thinking over short-term cutbacks – and as such flies in the face of the withering mood that radiates from the present national administration. That in itself is something to be thankful for.
The poet Roy Fisher, who was born and raised in the city, once wrote ‘Birmingham’s what I think with’. Well, a library like this is what the city thinks with. It’s an investment by the people of Birmingham in the people of Birmingham: both a symbol of self-education – a demotic culture of self-improvement – and its most practical aid.
Alongside universities and museums, public libraries remain the guardians of our collective cultural inheritance – literary and otherwise – and hence a mark of civilisation itself. That is an ancient and on-going role.
Libraries, however, are no longer simply the storehouses and lenders of books. This does not mean the end of print and pages. Books retain significant advantages as a technology: they don’t need batteries – and they are tactile objects, with an experiential quiddity of their own. But in addition to that role, the library is now a meeting-place – a place where things happen, and that makes things happen – as well as a global junction of information, image, and literature, through the internet. In the digital age, it is often assumed that we are gradually doing away with the need to meet, or come together as a community. On the contrary: one unintended consequence of the digital age has been to confirm the value of physical presence – what we might call the theatre of space.
The new Library of Birmingham achieves that sense of theatre, and the possibilities of new contact – and rightly so, for a library should also be a pleasure-house. Whether its users are studying alone and quietly, or gathering for a crowded public event, a library is a realm of the mind, of the imagination, of possibility. Like a book, a picture, a film or a piece of music, the library itself is an organ of mental space. It was apt that Malala Yousafzai should have opened the new library: shot by the Taliban for her fearless defence of the right to education, she now lives in Birmingham, the city where she made her recovery. As both its defenders and its enemies know, the mental space that a library serves – the realm of possibility – is the realm of freedom, and of true democracy. Through the reading mind, a library is somewhere you can go to be free, for free.
For more reflections on the Library of Birmingham, see the excellent blog by my colleague at Birmingham City University, Dr Serena Trowbridge.
Finally: don’t forget that the superb Birmingham Literature Festival (3-12 October 2013) will be held in the new library itself. See you there.