2 Feb 2012

Public libraries – the face of the future

Birmingham’s ambitious new public library is due to open next year – providing another architectural landmark in the very heart of the city, and a cultural treasure trove for generations to come.

It is a building site at the moment, shielded by banks of cladding from the thundering traffic and wall-to-wall nightclubs of Birmingham’s Broad Street. But in around 18 months time, Britain’s second city will have a brand new public library, driving what officials grandly describe as the “knowledge-based economy”.

Dutch architects Mecanoo were chosen to design the £189m project in the city’s Centenary Square: its 10 floors are already constructed, nine of them above ground. And the mesh-like structure which surrounds the whole building is being carefully put in place – the ring pattern intended to echo the tunnels and canals which fuelled Birmingham’s economic growth back in the industrial revolution.

Forward to modernity

Across the street, the city’s 19th century fathers, James Watt, William Murdoch and Matthew Bolton, stand guard in gilded statue form, perhaps to protect the heritage of that industrial past amid the harsh winds of modernisation. But council chiefs insist the library is an essential part of Birmingham’s regeneration, providing an exciting new resource for the entire community.

Mecanoo’s Francine Houlben has dubbed it a “people’s palace”, and as well as books, photographs and archives, the new library will host community events and even performances in a studio theatre. What is being called a “golden box” of secure archive storage will take up two floors, its metallic hues designed to change according to the weather, and the amount of sunlight. But it is a far cry from rooms of dusty stacks: there will be a state of the art exhibition space, allowing the public to see some of the treasures inside for the first time.

Cause for celebration

The ambitious development is a rare cause for celebration for library fans, given the pressure on local authorities to save millions of pounds: libraries are an easy hit. This year some 600 are to be closed or transferred to the control of volunteers.

This week MPs began hearing evidence at their inquiry into what should constitute an efficient library service for the 21st century, and the impact of closures on local communities. A number of councils are in the midst of legal battles to prevent closures, while the campaign to keep them open is backed by prominent authors. One of them, Orange Prize winner Lionel Shriver, told Channel 4 News she would be donating all her money to libraries in her will.

In the meantime, the cranes are busy high above Birmingham’s skyline, lifting, among other things, enough concrete to fill eight full-sized Olympic swimming pools. The city has calculated the 800-strong core workforce will consume some 900,000 cups of tea and 100,000 breakfasts in the site canteen before the project is done. Not just food for the mind, after all.