Friday, 21 March 2014

The Library of Birmingham

Whilst visiting a friend in Birmingham, I took the opportunity to look around the new Library of Birmingham. It’s been heavily promoted in the press, and has been being built for the past 5 years (I’ve certainly visited friends in Birmingham on more than one occasion when the building has been in progress).

Now, usually when I visit a library I do it in my capacity as a librarian (unless it’s my small local public library which, yes, I do use to borrow books for myself and my son). But this particular weekend I had my son, my friend and her daughter with me, and I was keen to look around the library from the eyes of a customer, not a librarian. Obviously you can’t stop thinking like a librarian, but your perspective is very different when you have a demanding 2 and 3 year old in tow!

I have to say, my overall impressions (both as a librarian and a customer) were very positive. I don’t use large public libraries that often, but, considering the sheer scale of the Library of Birmingham, it didn’t feel particularly intimidating. Instead, it felt like a social space that you wanted to be in. We visited on a Saturday afternoon, and the number of visitors certainly gave the impression that there were plenty of people who were happy to be there. Not everybody was using the library as a “traditional” library – there were clearly plenty of people visiting, like me, just to see what the place was like. But these people were still choosing to visit, and engage with, the library as a place to be. I don’t see that as a bad thing.

Another great thing about the library was that it wasn’t afraid to use signage. It didn’t feel cluttered, but in a building this big you need to know where things are. It took less than a couple of minutes to figure out how to get to the children’s section – although I have to say that the lifts seem small and limited for the buildings capacity. Now I’m all for using the stairs, but we had a buggy with us (to be fair, if more people were good at using the stairs those with buggies and wheelchairs would have been having less problems).

So, what about the children’s section? This was, after all, why we were here (well, that and I wanted to see the place). It’s incredibly well designed, and there’s plenty to keep kids entertained – and plenty of books too. When I visit a library with my son, I want two things:
  1. Enough books to find something he’ll enjoy that we haven’t read before
  2. Enough space and distractions so that if it’s a rainy day, or my son needs some playtime, he can get it. Extra books, interesting chairs and objects, and stairs designed for kids (all of which Birmingham Library has) are the kind of things that help achieve that. I don’t want to feel that we need to get in, borrow some books and get out again.
Actually, I’m lying. If it’s a children’s library, I also want somewhere to take him to the toilet! It may not seem like much, but it is so essential for any child, especially if you’re spending more than 10 minutes somewhere. Again, this did exist at Birmingham Library.

I have to admit, the children’s book selection was probably the main let-down. There were clearly loads on offer, but it was incredibly busy and the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday, so when I went to select some board books, I only found one in the relevant section. There may have been other sections of board books that I missed but, well, I missed them. So to my mind, they weren’t there. Having said that, both my friend and I had to talk to staff on separate occasions, and they were incredibly friendly and helpful. I’m sure, had I asked, that they would have helped me hunt some down.

I didn’t ask because my son was having a grand time without them, and I wasn’t going to borrow any anyway as we don’t live in Birmingham, and he has a wonderful selection from our small, but incredibly well stocked, local library. (I’m going to mention Fishponds Library in East Bristol here, because I love it. I love it a million times more now that I’m a mother. Small, but perfectly formed, my son loves it there too. We love the books, and also that staff let us head into the children’s section and have a play).

A lovely touch above the book shelves:
Small people statues with signs that read things such as:
"Don't worry, be happy!"
So, overall, very high marks for the children’s section. Now, because I was with a wonderful friend who always puts me first, she let me have a look around the rest of the library whilst she kept the kids amused downstairs. Which, firstly, means I got to use the stairs. But I also got to see the entirety of the library. About half way round, I became very disappointed that I didn’t actually want anything. A large part of me wanted to be on some sort of mission so I could see how successful I would be. But I did enjoy looking around, and especially loved the outside areas on the upper floors, which gave brilliant views of Birmingham. The building really has attempted to please everybody, with areas for meetings, areas for tourists, areas for scholars, and areas for those that just wanted to find a novel. And yes, there were still plenty of books. It still feels like a library. But it also feels like a public space which you can use in a multitude of ways. Which I think (and hope) is what they were aiming to achieve.

On my way back down to the children’s section, I was lucky enough to overhear a couple of people on some sort of tour. The member of staff was explaining how the building was designed to keep the right noise levels in the right places. The top of the building is quiet, with the noise very contained, whilst the bottom of the building is the noisy children’s area. I hadn’t really thought about it until it was mentioned, but this did actually work really well. When I had been up on the top floors it was very peaceful – the noise from below didn’t carry at all. So often libraries seem to be built and get the way noise carries totally wrong – I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t the case here.

The library does also look beautiful. Because I am a librarian, I have the benefit of hearing what my colleagues learn about when they go on professional development courses. One colleague explained that the library “took its identity from the urban landscape (gasometers and iron bridges, etc.) which means that the façade reflects the landscape.  The shapes of the ironwork on the exterior also impact significantly on the interior through shadows”. Whilst this reasoning for the façade may not have instantly occurred to me, it does look pretty good, and certainly (I think) fits with the central Birmingham landscape.

All in all, I really enjoyed our visit to The Library of Birmingham. Almost everything I hoped it would have (and be) it did (and was). I certainly came out feeling relaxed and like I’d had an enjoyable afternoon. Having said that, please don’t take away my local library for the sake of one amazing library like this. Visiting the Library of Birmingham was a great experience, but I’m not sure what I’d do with my Tuesday afternoons if my son and I couldn’t go to Fishponds Library anymore.

1 comment:

  1. I love libraries. It almost seems like you can hear the books breathing. The titles, the bindings, the ideas... Every time I have to get books for a research paper, I end up getting so side-tracked.