Why must I always be so sweaty? Whenever I arrive in a library I look jealously at those who are not quite so bedraggled as myself. The school run; the speedy walk from the bus stop; the reasonably heavy rucksack, in which laptop is pressed tight against sandwiches and blackening banana. All these things mean that by the time I arrive in a reading room I am well aware of the conspicuous dark patches spreading under my arms, sticky half-moons which often become so large that they risk joining together with the large area of damp that stains the small of my back.
So I am grateful when libraries turn up the air conditioning.
It must be said that the new Library of Birmingham does not seem to do air conditioning particularly well. The building – which is reportedly the largest public library in Europe – has been built at a cost of £189 million, but it opened during a September heat wave and this meant that during my first visit I gleamed and glistened even more than usual, which did not encourage me to like the place. And to be honest, I didn’t feel especially well disposed towards it anyway, given that it replaces the area’s old central library, which I have loved for many years, but whose brutalist design is currently out of vogue; and so it has been systematically run down and then abandoned, a husk to be pulled down at some point in the future.
I’m finding it difficult to get used to the new gold-and-black replacement that now squats gaudily opposite. The blingy rings decorating the exterior are supposed to conjure up various ideas about Birmingham’s history of jewellery-making and about interconnected ethnic cultures, but the overall effect is to make the site look more like the nearby Selfridges shopping centre than anything else. And some of the statements made by the PR team have made me groan: apparently this place provides “room for activity, noise, joining-in and getting together with friends”.
Having said that, the more I explore the new library, the more I find things to admire. The building really does afford some dazzling views of the city, it has given the Birmingham Repertory Theatre a much-needed new studio and foyer space, and it includes a number of features to attract a diversity of readers (great disabled access, for example, and an underground children’s library that looks like the world’s calmest ever soft-play centre). And of course, the collections at Birmingham have always been great. The new library contains a Shakespeare first folio, the letters between George Bernard Shaw and Barry Jackson, and many other genuine treasures, among what the library claims is twenty-five miles of archives.
For years, the only “rotunda” in the city was the distinctive, if dingy, office and apartment block at the heart of the Bull Ring. The library now displaces that memory by creating a “book rotunda” as one of its central features. This area is wrapped in many thousands of volumes and bisected by travelators. I heard one awestruck teenager describing it as being “like Dumbledore’s office, but also like Star Wars”. Personally, I was pleased and surprised to discover the bar selling beer and wine tucked right in among the stacks on level three, but my very favourite bit is the seventh-floor “secret” garden, where you can stretch your legs and cool down: I’m beginning to think all libraries should be forced to include one of these.
The Library of Birmingham also incorporates the Shakespeare Memorial Room. This wood-panelled Victorian library was originally built in 1882, with its ornate features probably provided by the Hardman church-furnishing company – the Birmingham firm for which James Pearse (father of Patrick) worked before he moved to Dublin. The room was uprooted in the 1970s, and has now been moved again, finding its third home at the very top of the new building, where it perches like a nonchalant hat.
The most notable thing about the new structure, of course, is that it is absolutely fucking massive. It occupies some 31,000 square metres, is ten levels tall and is geared up to receive an anticipated 3.5 million visitors a year. And, despite myself, part of me really likes the brio of this. Fair play to Birmingham for managing to cordon off so much prime space in the centre of town for a new building clearly devoted to literary culture. Worryingly, I’m pretty sure I feel the same pride that is felt by a religious nutcase when his group builds the area’s biggest shrine, mega-church, or mosque. Here’s one in the eye for all of those other pretenders who would claim to be the UK’s second city. Take that, Manchester! Eat this, Edinburgh! We could have spent the money on something else – £189 million could, for example, buy you the underwhelming Gareth Bale twice over – but no, we blew it on making ourselves an enormous new crib for our books.
It now remains to be seen whether bigger really is better. The city’s Repertory Theatre, for example, enjoyed its most successful days (with Peter Brook, and productions including a famous “Hamlet in plus fours”) when it was housed in a small venue around the back of New Street Station. When it moved to the current high-profile site – which has now morphed into part of the giant library complex – the quality of work never really recovered.
So yes, I confess, I’m a little bit wowed by the new library. But I guess I also wonder whether the intimate process of reading – which really involves just being left alone in the quiet without too many distractions – will be helped or hindered by having this vast new space within which to think, and sweat.
James Moran is the author of Irish Birmingham: A History. He will review Catherine O’Flynn’s new novel, Mr Lynch’s Holiday, in the next issue of the drb.