big library, little substance.

i recently returned from a 4 week stint in the uk and rome. my husband is from birmingham in the west midlands, and for the last five years i’ve been desperate for the new library to open so i could visit the fabled collections! in september 2013, the £189 million, award-winning building opened, and birmingham finally got the library they deserved. kind of.

some background: the library is the largest public library in europe. 6 of its collections (including the shakespeare collection) have been designated as ‘outstanding’ by the MLA council in the uk. birmingham has a population of almost 2 million people, making it the 2nd largest metropolitan city in the uk, and the west midlands metropolitan council area is 2nd only to greater london in cultural diversity. (thanks wikipedia!)

new shiny building.
new shiny building.

what did i find?  well, they have lovely gardens. and sweeping views of the city. it looks like a bunch of gift-wrapped boxes with a chimney on top. we all knew that though, because the plans have been public for years. this is the city with a department store designed to look like it’s covered in bubble wrap, so it’s actually fairly tame by brummie standards.there are some interesting spaces with shiny books and squeaky floorboards. there are lots of meeting rooms. there is not, however, a reliable comms network that can be accessed from all parts of the building: i found i couldn’t connect to the library wifi after the 6th floor. not a good sign for public information: what’s the point of being a pillar for open access if people can’t find anything online?

the herb garden. no wifi here!
the herb garden. no wifi here!

the library’s pièce de résistance is the Shakespeare Memorial Room, perched atop the building in the atrium. it has been painstakingly pulled apart and restored from the old library building. i learnt all of this when i googled it 15 minutes ago for this blog. why? because there was nothing in the room to tell me what it would be used for. the shelves were 3/4 empty, with one average a4 peice of paper that told me that birmingham library holds the most extensive collection of shakespeare in the world, and i was looking at some replicas of the collection (but no explanation as to what they were). but that’s it: i don’t know what exactly i was looking at, or where the collection is actually held, or what it includes; there were no details of his life in stratford-upon-avon (30 minutes away on the train if people wanted to visit), his works, or his impact on literature and the arts in the world. to make matters more frustrating, i couldn’t even google the info and find out for myself, because guess what: no wifi access!!

i was disappointed. with all the fanfare, and the build-up, i expected to see a lot for more the money they threw at the project. my overall opinion was that it was designed and managed by people who wanted to focus on a standout destination that can win awards and an exterior that people will talk about; they’ve made a pretty building, with beautiful spaces, but i struggle to see the impact of a budget for technology or collections. there were empty shelves everywhere. the fancy-sounding ‘knowledge and discovery’ collection is actually just the electronic newspapers and journals. the LMS is spydus, which is fine, but not exactly revolutionary in public libraries. there was one collaborative installation for people to get involved in, focusing on freedom of expression and censorship….  but that was in the theatre next door. ‘makerspaces’ doesn’t seem to have come up in the design process at all, nor could i find anything astounding in the way of a digital hub etc. my memory of the library website (currently offline at the time of writing) can’t recall any mention of the usual ‘look at our new amazeballs library’ bits such as 3d printers etc, so i’ll go ahead and assume they haven’t gone in that direction either (happy to be proven wrong). the library shop had a bunch of magnets, penguin mugs and cheap touristy things, but no books. let me repeat that: NO BOOKS. go to the state library in any state, and the bookshops are bookshops. not souvenir shops.

the rep theatre's fantastic installation re: freedom of expression. next door to the library.
the rep theatre’s fantastic installation re: freedom of expression. next door to the library.

it’s not all negative though, and they’re making inroads with some great services once you get past that blinding exterior. so, what are they doing right?

  • the children’s and youth service is a phenomenal improvement. the library has gone from having virtually no programs, to providing a calendar jam-packed with events. i’m also quite enamored with the special web section dedicated solely to the youngest library users. nice work!
  • i’m impressed with the business services on offer, including the creation of an Enterprise Club for small business owners and self-employed people to get together and share knowledge. and, of course, big bonus points for providing information and opportunities for people to understand Intellectual Property and Copyright law in the uk and europe. it’s such a big deal, and it’s a great program for up and coming designers and artists who are using social media to get their name out there.
  • the library is also partnering with local schools to improve the services for students: this is something i’m quite keen to push in australia; if we can manage youth collections based on curriculum as well as best-seller lists, it provides more opportunities for kids to have access to more titles and information through databases and collections outside their school. for many, it’s also a great way to introduce them to their local library, and for many who come from culturally diverse backgrounds, it opens up a world of information and knowledge that their family can also experience.

yes, it needs work. birmingham council have done a fantastic job providing a new community and cultural hub for the city, however they need to put the same effort (and we would hope money) into the programs and services that they have obviously poured into the design and architecture. at the time of publishing, i couldn’t access the website for the 2nd time in 18hours, so on top of the obvious shortcomings in wifi networking, i would say they also need to spend a lot more time and money on library systems in general. but it is brilliant to see effort and excitement surrounding public libraries in the uk, especially after the track record of local governments in recent times. considering they are trying to attract funding from the same government which hired an advisor who believes pubs and libraries should merge, i’m delighted they managed to get a wifi system at all! the main takeaway has been the realisation, and relief, that (so far) australia has embraced and encouraged libraries and information, to provide us with community centres like the birmingham central library, for years. we are very lucky: let’s hope it stays that way.

UPDATE: i’ve since found an intriguing article in the birmingham press about the collection development/management, and staffing in the years leading up to the new building. hmmm indeed. maybe my gut instinct wasn’t as far off as i was hoping….

*i will update this post with links to the library services when i have access to the website. until then, you can bookmark for future viewing 🙂



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