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 245.

    Well done Brum! Hopefully it will encourage many more to use library services. I'm still in two minds about the architecture, but that aside, if this was in London or even Manchester, I doubt we would have seen as much of a debate as to the cost and purpose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    This was one of those schemes that got through just before the 2008 crash. Two years later it would not have happened and Birmingham would have had to spend cash updating the inadequate central library.
    If this new building does what it says, "empowering the citizens of Birmingham", then it is worth it. I hope they don't all stay at home watching X-factor, Corrie and footie as per usual.

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    Birmingham has such a high unemployment rate the Gov thought giving them a good book to read will help them feel better.
    Yes the libraries great but Birmingham needs proper investment to help the area come out of recession or should that be depression because the economy is certainly still that bad north of Londonstan.
    How about a new runway to attract business, rather than in Londonstan again?

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    Why do people keep comparing Gareth Bale to how much this Library cost to build? A Spanish football club paid for him. The reason you lot are skint is that you bailed out to the tune of almost a trillion pounds British Bankers, if you want Libraries built I suggest you demand a General Election before Cameron does what's left in the biscuit tin on Syria. Plus you need to start building Schools!!

  • Comment number 241.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    Maybe we'll be glad of libraries when (as predicted) we use up all the fossil fuels and are no longer able to indulge in technological entertainment?

    Some mentioned giving people Kindles instead- I don't like them. There's nothing better than a physical book in your hand, and that lovely new print smell!

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    What a shame no one thought to spend that money on new books.

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    RWC10 "All free of charge to absolutely anyone?" But it isn't free of charge, is it? It will be costing millions extra in taxes for many many years, money squeezed out of hardworking local businesses, hard pressed famiiles, money that could have been left with the people who earned it to decide how to spend, not spent on the vain dreams of a bunch of councillors seeking their names on a plaques.

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.

    My main complaint about his isn't cost but that the roof "garden" looks like a bloody swamp.

    Gardens, sure but who the hell wants to sit and read in a swamp?

  • rate this

    Comment number 236.

    Hideous building at enormous cost.

    I'm neither pro nor anti libraries as such but this cannot be a good example of how to do it from either an architectural or financial perspective. Another blot on Birmingham's landscape, a city which is in dire need of something much better. The Victorians knew how to do it but Hitler wiped much of that out and no one since seems to have had vision or taste.

  • rate this

    Comment number 235.

    Everyone who's saying "Everything's online nowadays" is talking rubbish. You'll never need to go to the library for a reference book, but it's damn hard to find ebooks for free if you're after fiction! Libraries still offer the most accessible books. Speaking from personal experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 234.

    Looking at the internal design, wouldn't it make more sense to have the children's section on the ground floor rather than families having to use escalators? What about the external design? It is extraordinary but it is not uplifting. Birmingham has many architecturally beautiful buildings and it's a pity that these modern designers are so cryptic and are not inspired by past masters of design.

  • rate this

    Comment number 233.

    225.David _not the PM_ Cameron
    Lots of unis dosen't mean smarter people.

    True but Birmingham once the hub of the Industrial revolution is now a significant international hub for global technology, commerce and innovation, a thriving cosmopolitan city of culture and art.

    It is not, as some people "down South" seems to think, a desolate concrete 60s wasteland of council estates.

  • rate this

    Comment number 232.

    Looks great and libraries are still important and relevant in the 21st century.But is it really worth two Gareth Bales?

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    @224.GyCx, believe it or not Technology isnt the only answer.

    What about the people that dont have Computers or internet access.

    I personally cannot read a book using a kindle or phone app, its bad enough reading a document on screen.

    There is something about the feel of a book in your hand, its smell, the pleasure of turing a page, with an ebook its a sterile experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 230.

    228. audrey
    As long as there are countries where children are starving, do not have proper medical facilities, a decent primary education, then there is no way that £189 million should be spent on a library.
    And its the council tax payers of Birminghams responsibility to heal the whole world? Britain gives more than enough in aid as it is.

    #225 'Don't' would have been a better word......

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    Post 199 you will find that the service you require is already available from the new library and it is free.

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    As long as there are countries where children are starving, do not have proper medical facilities, a decent primary education, then there is no way that £189 million should be spent on a library. Whether the hardships in countries is due to bad government in place this really makes no difference. A library certainly but all that money? Definitely not. It is immoral but the hierarchy don't care.

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    The new Birminham Library will prove a great deal more useful to society, young people in particular, than spending so much money on celebrity footballers wages?

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    £189 million is an enormous amount of money. I don't think most people realise quite how much that is.We talk in millions so often now that a number like 189 million doesn't seem much but it really is.
    Seeing as small libraries that local communities rely upon are closing I would think this library is wasted money.
    I will be interested to see how much use it gets after it is opened.


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