Just when digital artefacts threaten to take over our cultural heritage entirely, Birmingham’s new library in the heart of the English Midlands makes no bones about the fact that the physicality of the printed word still matters.
The largest library in the UK, which opened in September 2013, replaced the austere functionality of its predecessor with a bold design by Dutch architect Francine Houben.
Inevitably, the substantial cost of £189m has been criticised by many but should be welcomed by the bibliophiles the world over.
I visited the remarkable building for the first time this month and was impressed both by the extensive facilities and by the range of users. This is not some bastion to an intellectual elite but a space designed to be accessible by all irrespective of age, race, gender or class.
There’s a real buzz about the place with a sense of free, unrestricted access. I assume security is built into the plan but this is so low-key that I didn’t see anyone in uniform or any overt signs that visitors are under continual surveillance.
There are activities for kids, a vast range of audio-visual material, gallery spaces, meeting rooms, rooftop gardens, wi-fi for all and abundant computers with free internet for library members. Yet perhaps most importantly, there are over one million books and, Kindle addicts take note, it is these and the reading areas which dominate each floor.
This is an ambitious building with a unique 21st century design yet it embraces the past too and, as the publicity announces, it rewrites the book.