A library fit for the future
Gone are the days when they were just for borrowing books or reading. These days, libraries have to provide CDs and DVDs, computer terminals with internet access, and communal spaces for all types of social groups – from storytelling clubs for parents and toddlers to book clubs for the elderly. Arguably, they’re more important now than ever before.
Of course their role has been widely debated in the media and within society over the last year or so – since government cuts forced many councils to close their libraries, transfer them to the control of volunteer groups or simply scale down the services they offer. In many cases, these cuts and closures have been challenged by newly formed campaign groups, for example in Gloucestershire and Somerset, where campaigners recently won their joint legal case against the councils.
The result of all this debate has been to increase the visibility of libraries – and boost the public’s appreciation of the services on offer. No doubt this will be given a further boost this Saturday when it’s National Libraries Day.
But across the country there’s now serious concern about the future for libraries. This year, it’s estimated that around 600 libraries in the UK will either transfer to the control of volunteer groups or close.
What many people haven’t noticed, is that as well as the widespread closures, there are also plans to open 40 refurbished or entirely new libraries. Today I went to visit the construction site for the new Library of Birmingham, which won’t open till 2013. But when it does it will be the biggest public library in Europe.
At a cost of around £190 million, the new Library of Birmingham will include a studio theatre, the city’s collection of archives, event spaces, cafes and a business centre. It will share a reception with the Rep Theatre next door. And, perhaps most importantly, it will house two million books. It’s being touted as ‘the library of the future’. And from what I’ve seen of the plans, it will be nothing short of sensational.
The plan is to factor into the design of the building an awareness of the increasingly important role of the library as a meeting place for people to share information, ideas and a love of reading. When I met lead architect Francine Houben she talked about creating a ‘living room’ for the city. And it’s hard not to be excited by the beauty of the building itself, clad in a frieze celebrating the city’s industrial past and topped off with a golden box showcasing the city’s archive and a memorial rotunda to local boy William Shakespeare.
Incredibly, when the Library opens, Birmingham City Council says it has no plans to close any of its smaller branch libraries. But there are concerns about its rather drastic cuts to the budget for library services and staffing – and how this will affect library users outside the city centre. Particularly as this is coming at a time when many of the more vulnerable library users, such as single parents, the unemployed or the elderly, are becoming more and more dependent on the services their libraries offer.
If the Library of Birmingham is to be widely accepted as the ‘library of the future’, it will have to work not just as a wonderful building or as an institution isolated from other libraries in the area – but as the lynchpin in the Council’s wider strategy for the provision of library services throughout the borough. Striking this balance between what can be offered by a mega-library and what can only be provided by smaller, local libraries is crucial.
Interestingly, when I spoke to architect Francine Houben, she told me that in designing the ‘library of the future’, she and her team have had to build in a certain amount of flexibility to their plans – because they’re not quite sure what the future might hold. The last twenty years has seen several old buildings having to be adapted to house computer terminals for example. Who knows what adjustments the Library of Birmingham will have to make in the next few years?
But we must remember that, contrary to a sometimes fusty public image, libraries have always moved with the times. They were quick to respond to public demand to borrow CDs and DVDs for example and adapted much quicker to the digital revolution than supposedly forward-thinking institutions like the music industry. Right now they seem unfazed by the rising popularity of the e-book, something which incited terror from the publishing industry for a long time. Many libraries throughout the UK are currently gearing up to provide their first e-book services.
So I don’t think libraries will have any problem adapting to whatever might come their way in the future. Having said that, there’s no doubt that this is a crucial turning point for libraries not just in Birmingham but across the UK. And with their future hanging in the balance, this could be the most important National Libraries Day ever.
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