Sunday, 4 May 2014

What are libraries for?

At some time or another over the last decade or so, probably every librarian in the world has asked themselves what the purpose of libraries is, in an internet-equipped world where all the information and literature of the world is available (at least in our imagination) with speed, ease and convenience at our own desk or in our own palm.

A photograph of a medieval library, in a recent article in the Cambridge Alumnus Magazine (Issue 71, pp 28-33), reminded me of how much things have changed. When that library was built, books were so scarce that there was no need for bookshelves: each book had its own reading desk, to which it was chained. There was no question of borrowing books; to read a particular book, you had to travel to a particular library and sit down at a particular desk. There was no presumption that a library's purpose was to make books available; in fact, Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose only required a slight imaginative twist to conceive of a monastic library actually designed to prevent would-be readers from accessing the books therein.

The huge libraries of the nineteenth and twentieth century were designed in a period in which it seemed an achievable ambition to gather all human knowledge, or a pretty good approximation to it, within the compass of four walls and a very large number of bookshelves. My old university's library was one of the handful in the country designated as "copyright libraries" (the British Library, formerly the British Museum, being the most famous) legally entitled to claim a free copy of every book and periodical published in the UK - a right that even before the advent of the internet was becoming increasingly difficult to exercise.

Now public libraries are re-branding themselves as information resource centres, and librarians spend as much or more time with digital materials as with printed books. At the Open University, where I currently work, and where only a tiny fraction of its students are able to visit the Library in person, the shift to online resources is a natural complement to our distance learning - though it does make the Library building a curiously empty space, with the librarians hidden behind Staff Only doors and the reading desks inhabited by a handful of African research students in need of somewhere to work.

So it was a joy to visit the new Library of Birmingham: a building conceived and designed not just to replace the old Birmingham City Library but to create a new role for itself. No public library is going to compete with the digital resources of the internet, but it can do something which the online environment can't: it can provide a physical space which is a nice place to be. And that the Library of Birmingham has done beautifully. Visiting it on a Sunday afternoon, with my wife and an old friend now a Librarian at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, we were struck by the number of families enjoying the building: browsing, exploring, having a good time.

From the outside, the building looks like a gold and silver jewellery box, but inside nothing is box-like: the internal walls all seem to be curved, running around like a snail's shell. The only obvious straight lines are the escalators, slicing across the central atrium at jaunty angles. Riding them up to the top of the building is like going on a non-scary theme park ride: vaut le voyage just for the pan-optical views alone. The books are arranged so as to be meaningful and convenient to users, rather than librarians and catalogues: there are books for browsing, the one (mainly fiction) most likely to be borrowed; there are books for finding things out (mainly non-fiction), arranged in radial shelves; and there are books purely for reference (such as the Statutes of England), which most users will never consult but look great on the shelves in their identical bindings and are located where they can best be decorative, as a sort of literary wallpaper.

At the top of the building is an observation deck, with large red sofas in which to relax and look out across the cityscape. There's also the Shakespeare memorial room: an elegant Elizabethan-style wood-panelled room, transported from the original library where it was built in 1882. A stone panel from 1887 cryptically connects the Library to its nineteenth century past and remoter medieval history. There's even a (well-signposted) secret garden. On the ground floor is a cafe, where we rounded out our happy afternoon with tea and cakes.

One of the tests of a library is what unexpected discoveries you make there. My unexpected and unlooked-for discovery, from a facing-out display in the non-fiction section, was a book called Writing for New Media - modern in this context meaning 1998,but still deeply relevant and inspirational in several intriguing chapters on the grammar of interactivity. (I've since ordered the book and will no doubt be posting about it soon.) May all the users of this great new library enjoy, as we did, happy afternoons and serendipitous discoveries.

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