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'Reinventing the library': Birmingham's futuristic vision

By Julia Leonard
BBC News, Birmingham

image captionArchitects hope the new library - next to the Rep Theatre - will regenerate Birmingham's Centenary Square
image copyrightMecanoo and Library of Birmingham
image captionThis cross section of the library shows its different levels and shapes within the structure, including the rotunda which houses thousands of books
image captionThe circular shapes can be seen more clearly from the air, something architect Francine Houben wanted to include to reflect Birmingham's industrial heritage

Prince Charles once famously called Birmingham's old central library an "incinerator" but the architects of its £189m replacement have striven to create a "people's palace".

The futuristic new building - which opens on Tuesday - aims to bring traditional book lending into the 21st Century while also housing one of the world's greatest Shakespeare collections.

"We had a long debate about whether to call this a 'library' or not, the whole idea of the 'library' concept needs reinventing," says Brian Gambles, director of the project.

"We have had to change according to technology and what people need.

"The business model of books and information doesn't add up any more, this is really a knowledge hub - not that we wanted to call it that.

"I make no apology for creating a space that has culture and learning at its heart."

That "emphasis" can be seen in the vast children's library, family history section, business suites and collection of one million books, of which 400,000 are available to the public.

Staff will use "wands" to find electronically-tagged books, rather than rifle through shelves, and there are more than 200 PCs spread across the building, which is expected to attract 3m visitors per year.

But there is a distinct sense of tradition in and around the futuristic feel of the building, which is said to be the biggest public library in Europe.

"It's been about a marriage of the two," says Mr Gambles.

"I do believe what we've got here is much more than books - it's about archives, photography, people and how they learn and interact.

"We've got digital screens, digital display tables and iPads, but equally it doesn't feel like you're in an exclusively digital environment - the book rotunda screams 'books'."

image captionVisitors to the library will be able to enjoy panoramic views of the city

The rotunda - through which visitors can glide up to level four on a travelator - houses some of the 40 per cent of the library's archive on display to the public.

The rest is stored on two levels of climate controlled rooms in the "golden box" that can be seen from the outside of the building.

With an amphitheatre, studio theatre, exhibition gallery and sound-proofed music practice rooms, the library certainly feels like it is about performance as well as learning.

'Very proud'

For its Dutch architect Francine Houben and her 100-strong team at the firm Mecanoo, the building's shape was an opportunity to "appeal to all the senses".

"I wanted to create a people's palace, a building for Birmingham and an interpretation of Birmingham," she says.

"The 5,357 circles on the outside frieze of the building reflect the city's industrial heritage - the craftsmanship, the factories, the canals, the jewellery quarter.

"Birmingham's such a young city and I wanted to give it a new perspective, for example I wanted to include the greenery around the city too.

"It had to appeal to everyone."

Mrs Houben and her team were commissioned in August 2008 and five years on, she says she is "very proud" of the finished library.

Construction on the former car park site started in 2010 and Mrs Houben hopes its eco friendly design will "be a catalyst for growth" around the city's Centenary Square.

"To be sustainable is an important part of our work, it was essential to show the public how you can do that by being energy efficient, create green roofs and using lots of daylight," she adds.

At the top of the library sits the Shakespeare Memorial Room, home to a collection of 43,000 books, including copies of the Bard's First, Second, Third and Fourth Folio editions.

image captionFrancine Houben said she was "very proud" of the building

"There's not a huge amount of Victorian Birmingham left and the Shakespeare Memorial Room was built in 1882," says Mr Gambles.

"This is the third library it's been moved to and I think people are totally unaware of the extent of the treasures here, the Shakespeare collection is just one of the jewels in the crown.

"We've got some really important stuff here and we've never had the opportunity to bring them to people's attention."

He said it was "thrilling" to be looking to the next chapter of the Library of Birmingham, its opening next Tuesday where up to 30,000 people are expected to visit in one day.

"That would be a good problem to have, but healthy and safety is paramount and we have extra security on board for the first week at least."

Dean Othman, one of 170 full time staff members, worked at the old library for 10 years.

"The old building had no natural light so the most impressive thing about the new one is its big open space with huge floor to ceiling windows," says Mr Othman.

"I've got no criticism of it all and this is more than just a library, it really is something else."

More on this story

  • In pictures: Library of Birmingham

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