Birmingham – second city of England

and largest Central library in Europe. Both statements might be debatable but everyone was telling me this during my visit to Birmingham Central Library today.  A bit of background for those who don’t know, as I didn’t.  A city of 1M people, Birmingham is heading towards being the first city in the UK and possibly Europe to have 50% of the population being ‘black’.  This term which is used liberally includes people from the Caribbean and India, Pakistan and places in between.  Most of the Caribbean community is 2nd or 3rd generation ‘Brummies’ and many of the Indian population are the same but there is a significant number of new immigrants arriving as newlyweds…we have all seen the movies….Lots of regeneration has been taking place in the centre of the city and it is looking pretty flash.  However, the Central Library is not.

Designed in the 70’s it is of the ‘brutal’ architectural style and is a bit run down and scruffy inside and has a rabbit-warren nature about it.  However, the seven story building houses 5 million titles and boasts six designated collections which are collections recognised nationally as having a great significance.  These include the largest ‘Shakespeare’ Collection and Birmingham Archives as well as a photograph collection of note.  Interestingly, on the seventh floor I found the ‘Black History’ collection and there was not one ‘black’ person in sight unlike every other part of the library that was a virtual united nations.  I wondered who used the collection and would have liked to hear an opinion on it. I thought there were many interesting titles and fantastic photos in the collection.

One of the most interesting things about the library is that the ‘Lending’ part of the library is a scruffy little floor with a relative handful of titles available to take home.  Four of the seven floors house a HUGE reference collection….some locked away.  I was astounded and suggested that if you were wanting to find some space saving they could make the collection borrowable and save heaps of room.  Interesting splits in dewey were also used with Photography being on 4 floors…..Lending, Art, Technical and Local Studies (history).  When I asked if this frustrated the customers I was told that they were reference so it wasn’t a problem.  Aside from these few oddities, the Birmingham librarians are a fantastic lot with enthusiasm and passion to burn.  They are leaders in many areas of service and are going hell for leather getting a lot of great initiatives up and running.

I met with two women who were working on the new Central Library project.  Six years in to the project they are starting all over as the newly elected Council has rejected all the previous work and concept plans.  Along with this the original site has been rejected and a new one, much smaller than the 38,000 sqm required has been chosen.  This is heartbreaking for the people working on the project and very confusing for the community as about £250,000 was spent getting this far.  Interestingly we have many ideas and problems in common.  Leaving with about 2kg of planning material and fantastically produced maps, plans and booklets, I staggered out in to the sun to find a beach in the middle of Chamberlain Sq.  Very cool. 

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