So, we have a new Library of Birmingham. The waiting seems to have gone on for eons but last Tuesday it finally opened its doors. If you live in the UK you can’t have missed this event because it’s been on almost all of the news bulletins and that alone has to be a good thing. Libraries making news for opening rather than closing is something of a rarity in our current financial climate.
And what a library. Oh I have some quibbles; I can’t say I like the external design and how certain features got through health and safety is beyond me, but taken all in all, I think it will serve its purpose and some more.
How true the claim is that it is the biggest library in Europe I don’t know, but I do know it took me almost two hours just to walk round and that was without stopping to browse amongst the thousands of feet of bookshelves. Although I cannot tell a lie, I did pause for a little something in one of the two cafés and rest my feet for ten minutes in the lower of the two terrace gardens.
It also boasts a studio theatre that has already played host to the Rev. Jesse Jackson and children’s laureate, Malorie Blackman, amongst others and over the weekend many of the local musicians, both professional and amateur, performed in the amphitheatre to be found immediately in front of the main entrance.
Of course, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating, or in this case, in the reading. Birmingham library is something of an oddity combining a public lending library with several remarkable research collections. For example, it has a Shakespeare collection second only to that of the Folger and a friend whose research interests are that way inclined tells me that its local history archives are outstanding. There is certainly plenty of space for people to study in there. How accessible the actual materials will be remains to be seen. My Shakespeare group starts a term long exploration of Measure for Measure next week so I shall have good reason to put them to the test.
There is something even more remarkable about the building of this library, however. The picture at the top of this post shows that it is right next door to the the Birmingham Rep, a true repertory theatre of national renown, which has also been refurbished and opened again last week to full houses. Walk past the theatre and immediately next door to that is the International Convention Centre, which includes Symphony Hall, arguably acoustically the finest concert venue in the world. Local councils come in for a lot of stick and there are many things for which I would happily take Birmingham Council to task, but one thing they cannot be faulted on is their commitment to the arts. They have put money into all these ventures and where the Rep and Symphony Hall have been concerned they have been amply rewarded, because very often you have to fight for a ticket even in these financially difficult times. Last week you had to queue to get into the library as well. Let’s hope it continues to be as successful. The people who have not only said they were committed to the arts and education but actually put their money behind them as well deserve no less.