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 185.

    It makes sense to have one really good, modern central library with more books and facilities. The trouble with small local libraries is that the selection of books tends to be limited - the initial outlay for a large central library is a lot but as a long-term project you have a better facility that people would be more likely to use.

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    I can't see the architecture, only the decoration. The shape and its position should say "reading transports you to a higher plain of existence", not "here is another dirty factory with books in".
    And isn't borrowing books disconnected for the way we live? I think it should have been a beautiful place where you GO to read, amoungst flowers, sculptures, corners for live music and free coffee.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    @171.Triceratops-Obsoletesauraus, I agree the old library was dated and stuffy, but given the circumstances of the current economy was it worth £189 million, especially against the 6000 people Birmingham city council have made redundant in the last 3 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    On the surface, this seems to clash with the strategy of closing local libraries and facilities to save money, but it's a good move.

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    Last century I did research at the British Library with 300 year old books carefully carried from store and studied in a controlled environment. Now I just read the online copies at home.

    The Birmingham architecture would be more fitting if it looked what it is - a chocolate tea strainer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.


    "I wouldn't give any council money for library's councils are the biggest waist of money"

    We are not talking about the "biggest waists" - try a health forum....

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    @174. Peter_Sym

    Very true, libraries exist so you can see if you like the book series. I know I would not be reading half the existing series of books I currently do without first having seen them in the library.

    Not on;y that libraries hold local records, and lots of reference books for other activities. Such as language books or books students can use without it costing a fortune.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    Large libraries such as this are vital for the storage and preservation of our literary heritage.
    Whether £189m is the right amount of money to spend is a whole different question. I am more and more convinced that public, and for that matter some private, procurement processes are run by idiots who do not understand the principles of strong negotiation. They spend without thinking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    LOL, UKs excessive planning/construction delays means that we are still building & coming to completion of many projects conceived before the banking crisis & recession, hence probably why Birmingham Labour council have done their utmost to privatise this library even before completion.

    Its a grand library, no mistaking that, but Spain has many similar projects & is in the DIRE because of them

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    According to wikipedia, the population of the city of Birmingham is just over 1 million. So this works out at £189 per person. For that much money, you could buy everyone a Kindle and £120 of Amazon vouchers to buy whatever books they want. And you wouldn't have to keep spending money on staff costs or building maintenance.

    A classic example of a 19th century solution to a 20th century problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    This reminds me of the Gordon Brown days, where the measure of success was simply how much money you spent on (threw at) something, and absoluely no consideration for value-for-money or effectiveness. The taxpayer had no chance and, based on today's voting tendencies, clearly still does not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    169. Remus
    Sad but true. E-books are killing libraries. Why go to a library when you can have a thousand books in your pocket?
    Two reasons. Generally an eBook will cost you more than a paper one (you pay VAT on eBooks) & a library is free at the point of use. More importantly its easy to download an eBook IF YOU ALREADY KNOW IT EXISTS. Libraries are great for browsing.

    That ignores reference

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    It's a bargain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    What's all this worth more than a football player rubbish?! Where's the connection? Spanish council tax payers did not pay for Gareth Bale.

    Council tax payers did pay for this latest Labour council inner city vanity project though - and they will keep on paying to run it.

    Pity Birmingham's Labour council is broke.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    I studied at Birmingham Uni until 2010 & used the campus library mostly but, the few times I visited the central library I was in quite a hurry to leave, it was drab and stuffy. I understand that set against library closures it seems an extravagant project but from what I've seen, the library will be an exciting space to be in and will bring the community together in learning - no mean feat!

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    @99 Money "I am looking at doing my second PhD"

    I didn't know "More trolling for dummies" got you a doctorate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    Sad but true. E-books are killing libraries. Why go to a library when you can have a thousand books in your pocket?

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    143. Ron " the fancy metalwork will be a nightmare to keep clean?"

    That's OK, by the time it gets dirty and shabby it will be out of fashion and 'need' tearing down & replacing.

    146. Truth logic sustainability "How many times does a library need to be replaced?"

    Every time it goes out of fashion. The old one was sound but 'dated'. If they'd kept the C19th original it would be back in style now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    It's abit late in the day to moan about the cost, it's already been built!

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    138. ogwen
    If we can spend £75m on a footballer, then we can spend £189m on a library.
    "We" didn't. The (very, very bankrupt) Spanish did. Still, it'll take their mind off Gibraltar.


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