By Geoff Dexter
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Library of Birmingham – a stunning showpiece but still shaped by the cuts

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Issue 2371
An open air ampitheatre at the Library of Birmingham
An open air ampitheatre at the Library of Birmingham (Pic: Birmingham News Room/flickr)

Birmingham’s new ten?storey, £189 million, civic library opened last week. It is an awesome sight, combining open study spaces, stunning views and beautiful roof gardens. 

The public spaces are created in a three dimensional interlocking design of concentric circles that link multi-level zones. 

More than 400,000 books are on display, with many more archives and space for up to a million books. It also houses Britain’s most important Shakespeare collection.

It is an odd time to open the biggest public library in Europe when more than 200 local libraries closed in Britain last year. 

But it reminds us that showpiece architectural projects can be public spaces. It goes against the neoliberal mantra that everything new or revolutionary comes from the private sector or corporate sponsorship.

The rich sneer that the poor don’t appreciate this sort of thing. But where the public have access to such developments—for instance when national museums were made free—they have been both popular and appreciated.

But even this library is caught up in the cuts. Trade unionists exposed the tendering document put out by Birmingham’s Labour council. 

It said this was a “good opportunity to reduce costs of staffing, facilities management and public service overhead.” 

Meanwhile, the council has reduced full time staff from 260 to 161, and cut combined library opening hours by 139 hours a week over the last year. Furthermore, library director Brian Gambles said, “We need to find ways to generate commercial income.” 

With 3.5 million visitors expected a year, the opportunities for learning at Birmingham’s library are great indeed. And so, undoubtedly, is the potential to make profit.

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