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 🙂


Back from the abyss…..

It has been a very, very long time between drinks. What with studying, and working, and welcoming our newest Haden deriver in the form of Cleo the cat, I’ve neglected to record a single adventure from 2012. For the next month or so I shall endeavour to go through 12 months of photos and facebook posts and put together some semblance of a blog that can document all the fun times and wonderful things Ross and I have experienced that are missing on La Derive. Thanks for your patience!! 

How to Avoid Christmas and Buy Luck Dragons

I’m not what you’d necessarily call a ‘festive person’. This year I found a Christmas tree bauble that had the word ‘meh’ on it and I thought it was the funniest thing I’d seen. Don’t get me wrong, I do actually love the holiday and the opportunity to get together with family, blearily exchange gifts, stuff ourselves silly on too much food, but let’s face it: when you’re in your twenties (ahem) and the youngest family member is almost in their twenties it tends to lack the magic that only small, hyperactive and easily lead children can bring. Needless to say, the most fun thing a person my age can do at Christmas is avoid it all together and go on a holiday!!!

Singapore used to be referred to as ‘Singabore’. Sure, it’s not necessarily the most carefree and wild place you’ll go to; it’s a veritable pussycat compared to Bangkok’s more outrageous pace of life, but Singapore is nowhere near as dull and controlled as it used to be. From the massive monoliths of Orchard Road to the floating Louis Vuitton on the banks of Marina Bay, Singapore sits perfectly on the edge of old world charm and new world technology. Some highlights of our five days in SG included:

Chinatown. Our base for 5 nights, Chinatown doesn’t stop. EVER. Full of hawker stalls, jade shops and tacky souvenir stands, Chinatown also harbours some of the best back street restaurants and rooftop bars in the city. Be sure to check out the Korean district on Tanjong Pagar Road and the trendy bars and restaurants at Ang Siang Hill (including The Screening Room cinema and bar and Breeze at Scarlet Hotel). Shots Cafe at Ang Siang Hill single-handedly converted me from a soy flat white drinker to straight espresso shots; I’m still trying to find a cafe in the land of coffee known as Australia that even comes close in quality.

Little India and the Arab Quarter. During the day the tiled streets are home to silk, sari and traditional rug merchants, but at night the tables come out and the air is filled with the scent of shisha (hookah pipes with fruit flavoured tobacco). Singapore’s largest and arguably most beautiful mosque takes pride of place in the centre of the streets: the gold dome can be seen from any lane at any angle. A dingy little lane with only a wall of street art hides Singapore’s hippest and most trendy stores. Haji Lane only opens from 11am but it is a treasure-trove of Etsy inspired accessories and locally designed fashion. If you’re looking for your fixie bike, come and find it here!

Orchard Road and Singapore Botanic Gardens. In what will be forever known as the area Ross had a complete consumer meltdown, Orchard Road is a mecca to shopaholics. Everything in the area is designed to get you in, and prevent you from getting out: even the subway paths winding below invariably lead to mile upon mile of shopping centre, with no discernible exit and only the promise of Sale! Sale! Sale! keeping your spirits up. Once you’ve recovered from seeing four Dior stores in the space of 2km (did I mention Singapore has the highest amount of millionaires per capita in the world?), ignore the shopping and head towards the Botanic Gardens. Along the way you’ll notice the number of ex-pats increase: Orchard Road is also the home of foreign embassies. The gardens are a gorgeous haven in an otherwise bustling city, with the National Orchid Garden and an area specifically dedicated to ginger plants (I had no idea Birds of Paradise were ginger plants!). You’ll find turtles and coy living somewhat harmoniously in the lake, and if you’re lucky (and quiet) you might come across one of the parks larger residents, the Water Monitor.

The Colonial District and Marina Bay. With one of the most iconic modern buildings (and I don’t mean Raffles) it’s hard not to head to Marina Bay. What is essentially a giant boat plonked on top of three high rises holds the Marina Bay Sands hotel, casino and shopping centre, complete with an indoor canal and boats to row you to your store of choice. Before you head there though, you must go past Clarke Quay and the original shophouses that line the riverfront; most have been converted into touristy restaurants, but they’re pretty to look at from a distance! In what was the biggest shock, you’ll also notice that Singapore riverfront looks pretty much exactly like… Brisbane riverfront! It’s uncanny: I think they’ve been swapping notes. Around the river you’ll find culture central: the museums, galleries and cathedral are all designed to resemble famous iconic buildings in London (St Paul’s Cathedral for example), and possibly the cutest parliamentary building, the Old Parliament House is now a memorial to Thai cultural relations. Keep going around and you’ll see the honeycomb-like convention centre that glows at night, and the space-age ArtScience Museum, built to resemble what looks like a big plastic flower. Of course you also can’t miss a visit to Singapore’s mascot, the mythical Merlion.

Pulau Ubin and Changi Village. After the great ‘Ross hates consumerism/get me away from shopping’ incident the day before, nature and conservation were on the menu. Being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, you could be forgiven for thinking that greenery and wildlife on Singapore were either a thing of the past or part of an exhibition. Not true! More than half the country is green and smack bang in the middle of the Straits of Johor is a tiny little island called Pulau Ubin. From the city, an MRT to east Singapore (and apparently the best food in town comes from here) and then bus to Changi Village will put you on the coast of the main island. From here we caught a bumboat over to Pulau Ubin, which has a small fishing village and not much else! We rented bikes and rode our way around; from the west wetlands and swamps where Malaysia is visible and you’ll share the path with wild boars, to the east where the now defunct quarries are filled with deep blue water and tempting to swim in (don’t bother: you’ll be fined). The island has been working on the conservation of the rare Oriental Hornbill; a large bird that resembles a toucan with a bumpy beak. We didn’t expect to see any, but without a doubt the highlight of my entire 5 days in Singapore was sitting and watching a crazy hornbill have some lunch and sing to itself until my neck went numb staring upwards! Totally unbelievable. Back in Changi Village, we were treated to the loveliest and most attentive service at a hawker centre since we’d arrived.

Without a doubt, Singapore is a great way to see an example of true ‘east meets west’ culture; with Chinese, English, Tamil and Malay jointly recognised as the official languages and cultures of Singapore. Skip the tourist hotspots of Sentosa Island and Raffle Hotel and jump on a MRT to experience something different and unique. Whatever you do though, make sure you leave your ideologies about food at home and just jump straight in and try whatever they’re offering: Singapore has an incredibly proud (and somewhat arrogant) attitude about food, and they like to cook it, eat it and enjoy it with friends as much as possible! Eating was recently voted the favourite hobby of Singaporeans in a national survey! Make sure you check out these:

The Smith St Hawker Centre and Maxwell Rd Hawker Centre in Chinatown for cheap, fresh traditional Chinese meals. Ignore the decor and dive in; it’s cleaner and fresher than most food you’ll find in western food courts! Try the Char Kway Teow (cockles and flat noodles with egg) or the Chilli Crab.

The Hong Kong Kitchen on South Bridge Road has delights such as pig stomach soup and frog stew. If you’re not ready to be so adventurous, grab some fresh prawn balls and coffee chicken with a Tiger beer.

Restaurants in and around Chinatown are often western themed; don’t be too surprised if your ‘spaghetti’ turns out to be flat noodles with a vegetable sauce!

Hit the bars in and around the bay for beautiful views of Singapore at night. We went on a bit of a hunt for rooftop bars and found a few more than the ones already mentioned. 1– Altitude at One Raffles Place is a must simply for the fact it’s the highest in the city; Ku De Ta sits atop the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and offers 360 degrees of the straits and the city (and the world’s highest infinity pool); The Club Hotel on Ang Siang Road has a jazz bar every Thursday night  and a dessert cafe downstairs; but without a doubt, the best is Prelude at the Boathouse on Fullerton Bay. It’s only 6 storeys high, but it offers unobstructed views of the bay in a beautiful Art Deco setting.

Beware the Rhino

‘an oldie from la derive which i love because it was pre-move to melbourne….’

My greatest fear when travelling to Melbourne is that an army of hipster trendy types in skinny jeans and thick-rimmed glasses will rise up and, as a collective on their über chic fixie bikes, take over the city one latte at a time.

Then I realise I’m one of them.

Read More »

Happy endings in Bangkok

This Easter holiday, Ross and I decided to avoid the lack of bars open on Good Friday and embarked on our first trip to South East Asia. Five days in a city of 11 million people should be hectic, but in fact it was one of the most relaxing holidays I’ve been on, not least because none of it was planned. It’s the first time I’ve gone anywhere without concocting the ‘Itinerary from Hell’ beforehand, and it lead to a week that felt like three. Without trying to get all Lonely Planet on you, here are some moments from our trip that stood out as must-do’s for the future.Read More »