I am scarred by libraries. The libraries of my youth were administered by a miserly council, run on a paper ticket system (even twenty years ago many of them had barcode systems) and suffered from miserable librarians and an overload of ancient, ever unchanging stock.
When I moved to the countryside, the librarians were friendlier, but the access wasn’t; you couldn’t get a child’s buggy into the library, unless you were prepared to carry it up the steps. You had to go downstairs and ring the doorbell and hope that someone would a) hear you and b) have time to open the door. Often they didn’t. On the plus side, the county does have a mobile library, a wonderfully friendly service who actually used to ring me up to warn me if they were unexpectedly off the road! But the variety of books in the mobile was very limited, and quite a big proportion of the shelves were taken up by large print books.
Libraries haven’t featured in my life for years. They are not for me: I don’t have the time, and it is not easy for me to get to them, and it is not worthwhile when I get there.
So I didn’t even realise that Birmingham was getting a new library until I read about it on Serena Trowbridge’s blog: http://cultureandanarchy.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/the-library-of-birmingham/
When I saw that The Culture Show was doing a programme on it, I thought I’d have a look.
I wasn’t that taken by the outside. I’d wondered (until Serena put me right – it’s linked to Birmingham’s craft heritage) whether the outside design had an Islamic/mathematical influence behind it. And one passer-by nabbed by the programme makers did say it looked like a mosque! Other choice words used included: “bright”, “loud shirt”, “barbed wire” and “IKEA”.
So, when I saw the footage of all those crowds, I was very surprised! True, they’d got Malala Yousafzai to do the honours, but… wow! It’s a library… how good do all these people think it’s going to be?
Actually, it was very seductively good. Look at this:
It’s got escalators and everything: cafes, an auditorium, roof gardens. Books! And space. Lots of space. And more books. It looks like a fun place to be. It was quite inspirational. After all, if millions of people go to the Tate Modern to see pictures, why not people going to Birmingham Library to see books.
Presenter Tom Dyckhoff tackled head on the question that must be hovering at the back of everyone’s mind: budget. It’s a difficult one. Up to me personally – if you gave me a choice between hip operations and big buildings, I’d say new hips all round, every time. Luckily for everyone, and especially for me, I’m not in charge of large scale municipal projects.
There was a little run down of the history of libraries too, charting alongside it the status of books. From status symbol and preserve of the rich, through democratisation… to what? Libraries know that issue numbers are down. What is the future?
Michael Rosen came on and argued that these big bling libraries should not be a substitute for good local libraries, and that this would in fact be counterproductive, furthering the image of libraries and learning being for the elite, those who have the time and money to take the trek in to see the fabulous attraction. These libraries are the icing on the cake.
He’s right, but in these times of cuts, what is going to happen? My feeling is that libraries will become places of community – there is a library in one of our larger villages that is run by volunteers, and I think publically funded libraries in town will work harder to become essential to the community in many more diverse ways than before.
We don’t need libraries. But we want them, even me, deep in my practical soul, or my heart wouldn’t melt at the fabulous album shown to us of libraries across the world including Beijing, Stuttgart, Rotterdam and Perugia.
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