I got together with R and S, two ex-Waterstone’s friends, in Birmingham yesterday, partly for a good old chat but our main destination was Birmingham’s spanking new library which I’d been wanting to visit since it opened back in September. We had a gorgeous day for it – bright sunshine bouncing off the tiered, shiny jewellery box of a building which echoes Birmingham’s history in the gold and silver trade. Inside are nine floors, all devoted to knowledge in one way or another, from the colourful children’s library on the lower ground floor to the Shakespeare memorial room, twice moved – panel by panel – first from the city’s Victorian library, then the 1970s Central Library and now housed on the top floor, gold on the outside like a treasure box which indeed it is. It’s the kind of building that you’ll probably either love or hate – seeing it in the sunshine, all three of us were firmly in the love it territory – but if you care about books and education it’s hard not to be moved, particularly in the current climate, by the idea of nine floors devoted to just that. There’s a busy events and exhibitions programme, storytelling for children, terraces from which to admire the views across Birmingham, even music practices areas. It’s a generous, light-filled space, busy with students, readers and tourists like us marvelling at the splendour of it all. R, recently moved to Herefordshire where libraries are becoming thin on the ground, clearly felt a tad envious.
Stepping out into the seventh floor terrace and admiring the view over Birmingham I was struck by the number of grand nineteenth century municipal buildings in sight, an expression of civic pride and confidence in the future. The Victorians invested in us, and Birmingham City Council is following that tradition, investing in the future of its people. I’m sure it cost a bomb but investment is for the long term. There will be many children who achieve much in later life, many students looking out over the city from their work stations who will remember how important the library was to them. If you take the long view as the Victorians did, it’s cheap at the price. It makes me wonder: what will we be remembered for?