Whatever you think of the coalition’s austerity measures, you can’t blame it for the closure of the library in Alexandria. No one is sure but that disaster seems to have happened a few decades before the birth of Christ – so it’s off the hook for that one, at least. Much of the world’s knowledge up to that point went up in smoke with the burning of that vast, ancient repository, its destruction now a symbol of philistinism. Some think that had we not been playing intellectual catch-up for the 19 or so centuries after that, we might have landed on the moon around the time of Columbus. We would certainly have 123 plays by Sophocles, rather than seven.
Libraries gave us power, as the Manic Street Preachers once sang. Libraries also exude their own power, actual and symbolic. Like hospitals and churches, they are buildings charged with meaning about how a society sees itself and what it values. If the coalition had decided to close the nation’s municipal golf courses, it is hard to imagine that Nick Faldo would have chained himself to the seventh tee somewhere – but from Alan Bennett to Philip Pullman to Carol Ann Duffy, our writers decried this near-heretical act. Closing a library amounts to taking a book from a child’s hand,possibly literally.
The opening of the new Library of Birmingham is thus a faintly surreal moment, one that seems to fly joyously in the face of the dour, Gradgrind tenor of the times. It is bold, it is beautiful, it is barely believable. For five years, Brummies watched an extraordinary thing growing in the piazza at Centenary Square: an airy, black-and-gold palazzo of mesh and glass. On 3 September it opened to the public and among the crowds there was a buzz more akin to that of a Saturday at the Villa or a gig at the NEC than the launch of what is, in essence, a big building full of books.
A modern library is much more than that. Over its ten storeys, the Library of Birmingham houses an art gallery, a children’s area, a multimedia centre, two cafés, a music library, a performance space, a theatre, a restaurant, terraces with herb gardens and more. I was shown around by the architect Francine Houben of the Dutch collective Mecanoo; the tour was made all the more exhilarating by her evident love of the library and her awareness of what it means for the city.
“This is a people’s palace,” she enthused. When I asked whether the building expressed a striking visual statement on her part, she shrugged amiably and said, “It’s not about me, it’s about them,” indicating the throngs of people already eddying into every cranny and terrace, chatting, reading, writing, flirting (“Perfect for a snog,” she pointed out).
From the central rotunda, walkways radiate out to the terraces and gardens. These are spaces with the kinds of views – breathtaking vistas across the city to the soft, green hills of Clent, the Malverns and Wales – that are usually the preserve of upscale bars and hotels where Wags and minor celebs sip eyewateringly pricey cocktails. It is a democratising coup de théâtre, giving the city back to its residents.
On the way to meet the library’s director, Brian Gambles, Houben invited me to smell the mint and basil in the herb gardens and picked a delicious raspberry for me. Gambles often stops off here for a moment in the balmy evenings, on his way to one of the regular briefings that the team holds to monitor progress and problems. When he came to work at the city’s old library in the mid- 1980s, one of the first tasks he oversaw was the installation of two PCs.
The new library has cost £189m, or roughly two and a half Gareth Bales. Gambles frankly admits that the commission came in just “under the wire” of the financial crisis. “We were given the go-ahead in October 2007, just before the crash,” he said. “I spent the first two years preparing cancellation reports, detailing just what the cost would be if we abandoned the project.” There has been, one feels, quite a lot of quiet and steely determination behind this venture, which is characteristic of a great, unfashionable and vibrant city that, like Chicago or Detroit in its heyday, has always worked hard and got on with things without self-aggrandising blather.
The opening address – short on blather, long on heart –was by an adopted Brummie, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ rights to go to school. At the end of her speech, she placed a copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist on the shelf, the last of the 400,000 volumes on display. There are hundreds of thousands more in the archive, including two – a Shakespeare First Folio and John James Audubon’s Birds of America –worth £7m each.
As we passed a group of sightseers, one touched Houben’s sleeve and said, “This is beautiful. I love it. Thank you.” In these conflicted times, you might think it’s impossible to find a story that’s incontrovertibly good news. This seems to be it.