Library of Birmingham, Centenary Square Broad Street, Birmingham, B1 2ND – Visit Now
This exuberant, new-build library was commissioned in the pre-recession days of public funding – and doesn’t it show?
Birmingham must know a thing or two about books – or at least how to balance them. Because in a period characterised by cuts and closures, it was surprising that not only was Birmingham able to open a completely new central library last year, it was also able to spend £189 million on it.
It is less of a surprise when you realise that plans for the library – nicknamed the “people’s palace” by its architects – were passed in those much missed, pre-recession days (circa 2007). Then, public funding for the development of new libraries – whilst not without controversy – was still available. In terms of funding, the new Library of Birmingham just about made it through. And aren’t we glad it did, because now we can say that Europe’s largest public library is just a train ride away.
Built to replace an existing central library, a 1970s “brutalist” structure described by the Prince of Wales as “looking more like a place for burning books than keeping them”, the new Library of Birmingham is a three-tiered, cuboid, cake-like structure complete with a golden top hat. Naturally, it houses books (some 400,000 of them) but the facility is also as technologically astute as any 21st century library needs to be.
To this Yousafzai added that, “a city without a library is like a graveyard”
Architecturally, it is a structure decidedly more flamboyant than both its predecessor and its neighbours. On a pleasant day, the library’s façade, made up of 5,357 interlocking black and silver aluminium rings designed to echo the city’s industrial and artisanal heritage, casts magnificent shadows onto the surfaces within. A lively exterior sets the tone for an interior space that is equally energetic; a library this may be, but you should expect neither silence nor stasis.
You may, however, expect to spend all day exploring the library’s ten levels. Highlights include roof gardens, a panoramic viewing platform and (should you make it to the very top, and we recommend that you do) the Shakespearean Memorial Room. This wood panelled, Elizabethan-style structure had been preserved at the Library Theatre in Paradise Circus since 1980 (after being removed from its earlier home at the city’s Victorian library, since demolished). The Memorial Room has been painstakingly moved, piece by piece, to its new home within the library’s golden top hat; it is the icing on the cake.
Speaking at the library’s opening last September, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who survived an attack by Islamic extremists, quoted Cicero for whom, “a room without books is like a body without a soul”. To this Yousafzai added that, “a city without a library is like a graveyard”. This concise and heartfelt statement is justification enough for the continued financial investment in the cultural and educational resources of Birmingham. When Dutch architect and lead designer on the project Francine Houben termed it the “people’s palace”, it was an apt title to bestow. The library is indeed ours to enjoy. And enjoy it we should. While Birmingham stands with Manchester and Liverpool in the list of regional cities still prepared to invest in the creation of cultural centres of this scale, who can predict if and when anyone else will join them?
AccessibilityWheelchair and ambulant access