When the Birmingham Free Library opened in 1866, George Dawson, a prominent local preacher, told the crowds: “There is no word of the human vocabulary which brings a greater crowd of thoughts to the educated man’s mind than that blessed word library.”
It was built at a time of supreme intellectual, cultural and industrial confidence in the city, which had grown rich on metalwork, canals and Brummie red brick. Birmingham celebrated its success in an ambitious programme of civic architecture: a town hall in the Roman Revival style, a Council House, 30 new board schools, a school of art and the Free Library, a fine Italianate building.
Such was the city’s affection for its library that when a fire gutted the building in 1879 the public salvaged thousands of volumes from the embers and donations poured into the subscription fund to cover the cost of rebuilding.
But it has been many years since Birmingham had the public library it deserves. The opening of the new £188.8 million Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square this month will at last rectify that.
After the Second World War, the problem of space at the Victorian site became acute, with books having to be shelved three deep. The city’s progressive town planners, intent on destroying anything the Luftwaffe had missed, ordered the demolition of the Free Library and the building of a new public library for the brave new 20th century.
Work on the Central Library began in 1970, supervised by a local firm of architects, the John Madin Design Group. It was a Brutalist monstrosity: an oppressive, top-heavy concrete mass, enclosed by the city’s inner ringroad. Prince Charles, who can be relied on for these things, called it “a place where books are incinerated, not kept”. Brummies largely loathed it. One local confessed that excitement about the new library is eclipsed by glee at the prospect of the demolition of the Central Library next year.
The new library is a triumph — calm, lucid and flooded with light. It rises in four tiers, bumble-bee striped in grey and gold and clad in a lattice of interlocking aluminium rings. Larger black ones represent the city’s manufacturing tradition, smaller silver ones its reputation for fine jewellery work.
It will hold 800,000 books, 3 million photographs and more than 20 miles of archive shelving. In the jargon of all modern libraries, it is to be a “multi-use space”. There’s a cafe and community garden, a sunken amphitheatre, a children’s play area and internet hub spots.
Patrick Arends, an architect at Mecanoo, the Dutch designers, explains that they wanted to get away from the “traditional ‘Shhh’ library”. When I put it to him that some people might like “Shhh” libraries, he grudgingly pointed to quiet study areas away from the bustle of the central rotunda.
The one constant of the three Birmingham libraries has been the Shakespeare Memorial Room. This fine oak-panelled chamber in “Jacobethan” style opened inside the Free Library, was incorporated into the Central Library and has been painstakingly moved, one piece of stained glass at a time, into the golden tower of the new library. It is a jewel-box of a room.
Here, you can almost hear echo the words of George Dawson’s inaugural address: “How little of the din of this stupid world enters into a library.” He would have understood the virtues of a little “Shhh”.