Library of Birmingham: Official opening of £189m building

Library roof gardens The new library features a rooftop garden and panoramic views of the city

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Birmingham's new central library has opened at a cost of £189m. But in an era of spending cuts and library closures across the country, is such an outlay justifiable?

The new building - complete with an amphitheatre, gardens and hundreds of thousands of books - has opened its doors to thousands of excited visitors.

But Margaret Bailey, of Brent, north-west London, said she would not be sharing in the enjoyment.

She has seen six of her 12 local libraries close since 2011 due to spending cuts and said she was angry so much money had been spent on just one.

"We are told you can't keep libraries open because of the cuts forced by central government and yet Birmingham finds £200m for this," she said.

"If staff are being cut and services being reduced I would not want £200m spent on one library. It makes a bit of a nonsense of them saying there is no money."

'Financial crisis'

Birmingham is not the first city to spend millions on its library - Liverpool's central library opened earlier this year after a £50m facelift - but this project has cost more than three times as much as any other in the UK.

So-called "super libraries" have been springing up across the UK while smaller branches are facing closures and cuts as councils try to save cash.

Book rotunda 2 The library will hold one million books including a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio

A £24m library in Newcastle opened in 2009 but the council has said it plans to close 10 smaller branches. In Liverpool, despite the big spend on its central library, four branch libraries have shut and others have reduced opening hours.

The number of libraries in the UK fell by 347 overall to 4,265 in 2011/2012.

Birmingham has made cuts to its library service too. Last year the number of full-time staff fell from 260 to 161 and opening hours were reduced by a combined 139 hours a week.

Borrowed cash

The library's director Brian Gambles said they had been fortunate the plans for the central library were approved just before the economic downturn struck.

"We got authority from cabinet to proceed with this project with that budget in October 2007," he said.

"If we had been a year later, I don't think they would have approved it. I think we would have been right at the outset of the financial crisis."

Most of the funding has come from borrowing with a small amount from donations. The council has also raised some cash by selling land. Mr Gambles said the spending was justified.

Benjamin Zephaniah Benjamin Zephaniah believes the new library is "something to be proud of"

"Even in the middle of a financial crisis, if the private sector investment essentially dries up, the thing that keeps the economy going is public sector infrastructure projects," he said.

However, the fate of the smaller libraries is a concern to award-winning writer Andrew Davies, who scripted the BBC television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

"One thinks they could have kept a lot of local libraries open [rather than spending money on one project]," he said. "I do think there needs to be some super libraries that you can go into with confidence and get absolutely anything.

"But I got so much from my little library in south Wales when I was a teenager. They mean a lot to communities. It would be a shame if they disappeared."

The new central library has a staunch defender, however, in one of Birmingham's most famous sons - the poet Benjamin Zephaniah.

"I think it's something we should be proud of," he said. "It will be an attraction that will draw people to Birmingham. It's an investment for the future. It will only add to what is already in the city centre.

"I don't know if the council is right to spend that kind of money. You can't have it bigger without spending more.

"The whole idea of libraries is changing. But there will be no one model. A city like Birmingham will need different libraries to smaller towns.

"The thing about smaller libraries is the workers have real knowledge about the items on the shelves. My only fear is that the big libraries are too big for the staff to know the books."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    @58. Therapne

    What happens when the electricity goes off?"

    I think you'll find e-readers run on batteries that last for several days without a charge. If your power goes off for several days, you would have more important things to worry about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    It's money we'll spent! I've personally been using the refurbished Liverpool library for university work and its superb!

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    It is a ridiculous way to allocate library spending. What use is a library if it is miles away from where people live? Why does anyone need a million books in one place? My local library, which I could cycle to before it was closed down, probably had a couple of thousand and I know I never read them all!

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    6 Minutes ago
    Not really sure why they would spend £200 million on a physical library when the entire knowledge of mankind is now available on the internet

    What rubbish & false.

    For every published article/book there are multiple unpublished articles/books, many of important historical/scientific significance.

    The internet is NOT the sum of humans/the world

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    If you are going to have these large mega libraries then they should be assigned an area to support smaller local libraries where you are able to browse whats on offer at your local library and pay to have it shipped to your local library from the central library. Who the hell is going to go to the trouble of travelling to Birmingham from out of town to borrow a book from this place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    A peoples palace in the city center to show off their wealth and enhance the cities prestige. Meanwhile the perfectly utilitarian libraries that parents take their schoolchildren to every week are closed. I think they made the wrong decision.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    I see that £650 million was spent on the pathetic circus that is football transfers over the summer.

    That makes this look a bargain - taxpayers money or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    The central library in any town or city isn't just about lending books - hardback, paperback, or e-book - that's what the local branches are for. The central library's collections are a vital part of the city's history and knowledge of itself - its past, present, and future. Use the reference section! Investigate the local history collection!

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Another day, another grandiose taxpayer funded scheme so someone can cut a ribbon and feel important.
    Libraries yes yes yes. But £189m for a building to store books and computers and provide seating? It seems very high, when for the same money you could build six secondary schools

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Pranab (70) - I hold libraries in high esteem & think they are something we should cherish BUT:

    1) This one has been built at the cost of many other local libraries - I think this has reduced accesibility

    2) Cost has been massively overblown by trying to make an "Architectural Statement"

    3) A simpler/cheaper outer shell could still have an exciting inside to attract the youth you cite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    "We are told you can't keep libraries open because of the cuts forced by central government and yet Birmingham finds £200m for this" said.Margaret Bailey, of Brent, north-west London

    Well Mrs Bailey, its Brent council that closed your libraries and why is it so awful that somewhere outside of london gets a first class facility?

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Yes, the architecture will divide a lot of people. Birmingham has some amazing architecture, old and new, and I'm not one for trying to replicate the past. This modern building can sit comfortably alongside the more traditional buildings, Birmingham is a city which celebrates its heritage and its future equally. I have to say it looks stunning at night when lit up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I struggle with it. I'm pretty conflicted, dating back from the 90s when we kept getting told that "You cannot have that because it would cost X million pounds."

    But then we all woke up one day to find the treasury had handed 37 BILLION to Northern Rock at no notice and no questions asked and suddenly I figured money was no longer an object.

    I guess I am never destined to understand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Absolutely crazy!

    Technology & online retail has made accessing books & knowledge easy & cheap.

    From my experience the most important function of public libraries these days is as community centres. Maybe it has value as a destination building or landmark.

    Otherwise, this is a massively expensive museum

    Has this been a misguided ego trip for some local politicians ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Its ok if you live in Birmingham close to the library, you can visit and borrow books but in order to get the most benefit from libraries they must be localised and not centralised. The cost of this library would have sustained numerous small town and village libraries. Is the intention to centralise learning as well?

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Why are we even questioning spending on a library at all ? Have we become so dumb that we don't realize the benefits of a library ? Should be asking what can be done to lure children and youngsters to the library, instead of standing like gangsters in the street, so that they can learn and exploit the resources the library will provide.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    It would look at lot nicer without all those horrible metalwork circles.

    Less is more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    I'm from Birmingham, knew the old library and have looked round the new library. I am so proud. No one would comment on the cost if it was in the capital - i do think for what we've got it's good value for money.
    Many modern buildings can look appalling, this is beautiful, inspriring and if that helps get people into libraries it can only be a good thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    not too expensive - too bloomin ugly - for gods sake - first victorian bulding destroyed for 60's calamity. this second building is EVEN WORSE!! one fo the worst new buildings in UK - Birmingham - For Gods sake - go back to Victorian times - youve suffered enough as an arichitects playground

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    @64 "Not really sure why they would spend £200 million on a physical library when the entire knowledge of mankind is now available on the internet."

    Saves you having to wade through all the garbage on the internet. Libraries aren't full of adverts, special offers, conspiracy theories etc.


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