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Do we still need libraries? The Culture Show on Birmingham Library, BBC iPlayer

Credited to: Sean Marshall.

Birmingham Library
Credited to: Sean Marshall.

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:

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:

Credited to: Birmingham News Room.

Inside of Birmingham Library
Credited to: Birmingham News Room.

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.

Credited to: Elmastudio.

Exterior of Stuttgart Library. Lucky Stuttgart!
Credited to: Elmastudio.

Credited to: Elmastudio.

Inside of Stuttgart Library
Credited to: Elmastudio.

Credited to: roryrory.

Rotterdam Library.
Credited to: roryrory.

All images are Creative Commons licensed. Click on image to see original.



  1. That is a very beautiful library inside. Like you I haven’t been to one in years.I read all of my books on kindle now. I don’t think libraries will last except for maybe the bigger ones like you have shown. The wold has just become to digitized for them to survive.

    • But what sort of books are you reading, and what did you read before? Kindle seems to me to be a good solution if you are relatively cash-rich, time-poor and you’re not focusing on heavyweight academic material. There’s still a lot of esoteric literature that for one reason or another, isn’t available as e-books, or if it is, is priced prohibitively highly for me to want to buy it, rather than read it in a library.

      I think we need, for want of a better term, academic spaces. I think that’s a role that libraries can perform better than, say, sitting in a coffee shop with a Kindle and wi-fi. Even in Seattle, spiritual home of the Kindle (inasmuch as an electronic reader can have a spirit) the main library there is still useful, and very much used.

      • If it’s obscure I try to get it from Amazon and then flog it again afterwards.

        Just Googled Seattle Library and that’s another of these amazing big spaces. If I were going to go to a library, it would have to be big and appealing. Otherwise (probably wrongly) I would assume there was nothing in it for me.

        I would probably choose one big iconic space over lots of little libraries. I know it’s not as simple as that, but I like to associate of books with wide horizons.

    • I can see them lasting into the medium term. Brighton and Lewes have larger libraries which seem quite popular. There is still a big section of the population that is not digitised.

      But I think in a hundred years, like many things over that length of time, I think they will have become something different. Maybe larger, fewer of them, more diverse.

  2. Wow, that’s a library? I joined our local library recently because I wanted to be able to find a cosy corner and find back issues of magazines to read for research for articles I’m looking to write, but now I’ve discovered an App that lets me do that on my smart phone! Also, the ‘quiet’ little corner doesn’t exist there sadly. This was the first time I had visited a library since my kids were small. Then, I used to take them all the time. We used to do a summer reading programme from the school library and we always had a house full of library books. I do miss that. I think you are absolutely right about libraries becoming places of community. I hope that they can remain and change with the times and keep going. Our places of community are disappearing fast. Very interesting post Denise, as always 🙂

    • I loved the library when I was little. It represented a window onto another world, a world of words and books. But things change. My kids don’t feel the same way. They like the wider world. But have different ways of finding them now. So I guess libraries have to appeal to our curiosity about the world in a different way.

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