Birmingham: the big kids’ library

Modern public libraries are places to hang out and be distracted, not to explore the world of words.

Rosamund Cuckston

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Topics Culture

‘A library may be regarded as the solemn chamber in which a man may take counsel with all that have been good and great and wise and glorious amongst the men that have gone before him.’ George Dawson opening the Library of Birmingham in 1866.

‘Aristotle’s words are still breathing, Rumi’s poetry will always inspire and Shakespeare’s soul will never die.’ Malala Yousafzai opening the Library of Birmingham in 2013.

‘Relax and read or chat with friends in the Chill Out Lounge.’ Library of Birmingham leaflet for young people.

The new Library of Birmingham, the largest civic library in Europe, was opened earlier this month by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager and girls’ education activist shot as she returned home from school, with much focus on the importance of books. In its celebration of the masters of the written word and respect for its importance, her speech echoed the one which opened the first Library of Birmingham. Unfortunately, these sentiments have been betrayed by both the commissioners and designers of the new library, who have diffuse and ultimately patronising ideas about the library’s purpose.

The catchphrase of the new library is ‘rewriting the book’. According to the library’s website, the book needs rewriting due to our ‘rapidly changing world’, suggesting a modern world beyond our control rather than our own creation. Implying we need to discard old-fashioned ideas about books and reading, it sets off on the wrong foot from the start, nervously needing to make books appear less serious, more relevant, more modern and as good as computers.

The library has more of its books on display now than it did in its previous building. It has bought new stock, and although there were a quite significant number of empty shelves when I visited it, according to library staff this is a positive sign of an intention to increase the stock even further. Despite this, the books don’t really seem to be the main purpose of the library. Publicity leaflets suggest that the books are just one ‘strand’ of what the library is about. The library is being used as a space for a number of book-related art and performance events over the coming months. A leaflet on ‘Health and Wellbeing’ states that the library has a garden to grow fruit, vegetables, and herbs. Others advertise the availability of a recording studio, music rehearsal rooms and help with job search.

Reading the publicity material, it seems the average library visitor – as rather insultingly imagined by the commissioners and designers of the library – is a big kid: easily distracted, effusive, wanting to ‘experience’ a library and someone else’s whimsical ideas about ‘the importance’ of books without having to do anything so serious as reading them.

The design of the building similarly reflects this. It seems intended to encourage people to rush through the inside and make for the outside. If you take a book off the shelf and head for one of the reading tables that doesn’t have a computer monitor on it, or to the one ‘quiet study area’ indicated on the floor plan, you will be close to the large windows and big views. There is further emphasis on looking out over Birmingham via the different viewpoints. This big kid is seen as incapable of sitting still, reading and thinking, transcending the everyday in a place where adults or would-be adults can be serious, studious, quiet and reserved.

On the third floor of the new library there is a large circular space surrounded by impressive shelves of old volumes. However, where there might have been labelling to indicate what section of the library this is, there are simply shelf-wide panels of a brown-and-white textile design. Labelling is better in other areas, but it is difficult to understand why it should be done away with at any point, as if it is of no consequence. This is the Book Rotunda and according to the visitors’ guide it ‘symbolises the importance of books for learning, information, and culture’. This area has been described as echoing the traditional round reading room, echo being an apt choice of word for the flimsy attitude taken to the desire to do some serious reading in peace.

In the past, libraries were places for silent reading. In the new Library, the discipline of silent study is disregarded. Sound is openly welcomed as part of the diversity of the Library’s functions, with its amphitheatre, music practice rooms and recording studio. As the invitation to chat in the leaflet aimed at young people quoted above indicates, it is seen as a sign of inclusiveness to avoid something so overbearing and ‘elitist’ as silence.

Promotion of the online catalogue, performance and arts distractions, viewpoints and gardens, all speaks of a general insecurity about the purpose of libraries and books. The Library of Birmingham is certainly not the only library, new or old, to be showing this insecurity, or treating its visitors as big kids. But the idea of a library – a place full of the best books ever written, providing the luxury of quiet, uninterrupted reading and filled with people motivated by themselves to read and study – is the only one on which the future of libraries can successfully be based.

Rosamund Cuckston helps organise and run the Birmingham Salon.

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Topics Culture