The Library of Birmingham is writing a new and exciting chapter in the life of our city
It’s doubtful there’s been a more dramatic, talked-about building in the history of Birmingham than the new Library. A year on from its opening it’s still the centre of attention with Brummies and non-Brummies alike. When I was putting together this piece, I paid several visits to the Library and each time it was packed with excited children on trips of adventure and learning, scholars immersed in computers and laptops, business people meeting colleagues and contacts and assorted tourists curious to view this amazing-looking space and enjoy a coffee and a bun in the cool café area. It’s not often something as mainstream as a library can draw ‘oohs and aahs’ from visitors, such as the Japanese family with whom I shared a ride in the futuristic glass-sided lift spearing up through the centre of the building. They were impressed, as were the Spanish couple also along for the ride – as have been the vast majority of the 2.7 million visitors who have seen the new Library since it opened.
For the record, I think the Library is a glorious place. And the team who run it have their fingers, and everything else, crossed that the Royal Institute of British Architects agrees – because as you read this, the Library will be about to learn if it has been named the best new building in Britain. Library director Brian Gambles said: “We are all very excited about this. Even making the shortlist with the wonderful buildings which are also on it, is a massive achievement.” The shortlist list includes the bookies’ favourite, The Shard in London. But if the judges have an ounce of nous, they’ll pick their winner not for having zillions of metres of angular glass, but because of what the structure means to the community. And the Library means an awful lot to the community of Birmingham. The mere word ‘Library’ is a misnomer in this instance. Yes, there are thousands upon thousands of books, films and music and photography archives of every type on every subject, but the Library is fast becoming a key hub of activity and interaction for the area’s business and youth communities. In fact, it’s more accurate to say it’s a hotbed!
On the business side, the Library has a dedicated centre and team which advises budding entrepreneurs on how to take their ‘eureka’ idea from the drawing board and set it up as a proper business. The Company Formation service is part of the Edward Cadbury Centre for Service and Enterprise on the Library’s first floor and provides A to Z help, including drawing up a business plan, helping to source finance and involving the Library’s wealth of business partners to lend a helping hand with valuable input and advice. In July, the Library launched its Business and Intellectual Property Centre – the only site in the Midlands and one of only six in the UK – offering a complete business and IP advice service. “We are very involved in focusing on start-up business, particularly relating to individuals who are thinking about setting up a business but who don’t have the skill set to do so, or have gaps in certain areas of knowledge,” explained Brian Gambles. “We also run young entrepreneur and job and work clubs.” The latter are an important service helping members of the community acquire the skills they need to become work-ready. “The recent recession hit Birmingham harder than any other core city in the UK,” said Brian. “As a result the changing requirements of the job market has seen a skills deficit, and the Library has been and continues to be instrumental in giving people the new skills they need.” In the first quarter of the year, the Library helped 3,000 people through its job search and work clubs. That figure will top 13,000 in a full year.
The other key area at the heart of everything the Library does is youth and schools. “Literacy is an absolute priority for us,” said Brian. “There’s a recognition that the problem of illiteracy can’t just be dumped at the doors of schools. There’s a massive association between poverty and illiteracy, and the gap between the literacy of the strongest and the weakest children at the age of 10 or 11 can be up to seven years. That’s a very sobering thought. “Our role is to inspire and stimulate a love of reading – to make sure that reading is seen by youngsters as ‘not uncool’.” To this end, the Library has a huge programme of initiatives with schools in the region as well as a multitude of children’s activities in holiday time, many being free. “If the Library as to achieve nothing more than inspiring children to read, we will have done our job,” said Brian. “But we aim to achieve much more by being an integral part of Birmingham life and communities.” Together with all its other myriad services and facilities – including outdoor amphitheatre, state-of-the-art gallery and recording studio – the Library of Birmingham is truly the Library of the People.
LIBRARY IN NUMBERS
- 3 million – page views of www.libraryofbirmingham.com to the end of July
- 316,000 – books, music, films borrowed in the last year
- 32,000 – people attending events this spring and summer
- 21,000 – sessions on the public computers every month
- 430 – events and exhibition since opening
- 5 – one of the ‘ Five Amazing Libraries You Must Visit’ as named by HuffPost Travel