Monday 16 December 2013

A library opens: by Sue Purkiss

Now, the eagle-eyed among you may notice that this post has on the face of it little to do with history. It is in fact about something very new - it's about the Library of Birmingham. I went there last weekend, and honestly, it's so full of wonderful things that if I lived up there I'd probably move in. I took some pictures - they don't do it justice, but I hope they will at least give an idea of the scale of the place and the imagination that went into creating it.
This is a rather blurry picture of the Book Rotunda. You go up the escalator, and there, nestling in the heart of the library, is a kind of amphitheatre, a circular structure of book cases containing beautiful old books. So the building is spectacular, but at its heart are books.

If you look upwards, you will see the great glass elevator soaring up to the 9th floor from the 7th floor. But before you reach that, there is so much else to see - an outdoor terrace where you can take your book and enjoy the view over the city and the scents of the herbs, fruits and flowers that grow there; a suite where you can watch films from the BFI for free; a gallery, which at the moment houses an exhibition of photographs of the building of the library, and of the people involved with it. These last photographs are extraordinary: there were a couple of groups which reminded me of the composition and intensity of Rembrandt's group portraits - but I particularly liked the quirkiness of this one - apparently it was inspired by the subject's love of running and habit of doing regular stretches.

You perhaps can't tell from this photo of a photo, but the original gives such a sense of its subject's character.

On the 7th floor is the Secret Garden, a terrace surrounding the building and another lovely place to wander. Then you take the glass lift to the top floor, or if you're a wimp who gets dizzy driving across a flyover, like me, you stagger up the 90 steps to the top.
The Secret Garden

And there you find another surprise - a contrast to the contemporary architecture of the new building. For here is the Shakespeare Memorial Room, which came originally from the Victorian Library designed by John Henry Chamberlain in 1882. It is panelled with wood and ornamented with carvings, marquetry and metalwork, representing birds, flowers and foliage. The book cases are filled with Shakespeare memorabilia.

You emerge to yet another contrast, a terrace with extraordinary views right across the thriving, bustling city to the hills beyond.

As I wandered round the Secret Garden, it struck me that future historians, going by the evidence of this building, would comment wisely that its scope surely suggests that society in Britain at the beginning of the 21st century truly valued books and libraries. Which is a bit sad, really, isn't it? - when so many other libraries are under threat or already closed.

Just before I left, I went down to the lower ground floor to look at the children's library. There are rows of seats, raked so that an audience can watch a performance, talk or reading. And - for me! - best of all: some of my books.

I was there for a couple of hours at least, but still I only saw a fraction of what there was to be seen. I thought it was wonderful. A leap of faith, a triumph of imagination. It was opened in September by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived an assassination attempt and now lives in Birmingham. The last word should go to her. She said: "Let us not forget that even one book, one pen, one teacher can change the world."


Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, Wow! Nice to see there's one place where books are valued. I would love to shake hands with whoever set this up.

Celia Rees said...

I haven't been to the new library but I do remember the old Victorian Library. No reason to get rid of it in mho, esp. now new and improved has now been replaced by yet another model. I hope not at the expense of branch libraries and stock.

Lydia Syson said...

It looks amazing. Destination book-borrowing?

Sue Purkiss said...

Good point, Celia. But perhaps people would have objected to the waste of money when they built the National Gallery, or, I don't know, the Eiffel Tower. Would we be without them now? I don't know, it's a difficult one.

michelle lovric said...

I have heard about this place but it was wonderful to have a hand-guided tour. Thank you, Sue. I am very happy that it consents to call itself a library, and not some gimmicky title, such as too many libraries have these days, to hide the fact that they contain not just technotoys but actual books. In case it puts the public off, sadly.

Joan Lennon said...


Penny Dolan said...

I have mixed feelings about this library. In one way, fabulous, exciting, and heavens I wish I'd been there too. Destination borrowing, definitely.

Yet I can't help wondering what local cuts - books & staff - were made/will be made to fund the project, and what will happen to this grand library - particularly its stock of books to be borrowed, not those mighty books in their sealed-off designer display - during the next round of cuts. (Anyone care to bet on a library subscription date?) Wish I didn't think these things, but I do.