The Superb Palace of Bookland, or, the Library of Birmingham

People are queueing up. To get into a library.

Not a One Direction concert. A library.

I love this city.

This is the Library of Birmingham, opened this week after six years of planning and construction. It’s the largest in Europe.

In front of the library is an open-air theatre at the bottom of a pit. Actors are declaiming below as if ‘twere Shakespeare’s time, and crowds are gathered to watch. Couples stand hand-in-hand and marvel at the loveliness of it all.

Or maybe they’re just a bit hung over. (This is still Birmingham, after all.) They might be overawed by the neon lighting on the escalators. It looks like Minority Report. But for books.

People are walking around with mouths open taking pictures of it. In a library. The government are shutting down libraries when they can. We’re told that Google makes them obsolete. And people are queued up to get inside. Vive la difference, eh?

There’s a live choir on the top floor, which I assume won’t be here when it’s not opening week, but it does make me feel like William of Baskerville. Or Adso, anyway. There are computers all over the place, with open source OpenOffice and the Gimp on them (and MS Office and iTunes too). There’s a Contemplation Room, for what I know not (well, for contemplation obviously, but contemplation of what? The eternal oneness? What Billie-Joe Macallister threw off the Tallahatchee Bridge? Whatever miracle it was that got this place built?) And everywhere there are people looking at books, talking about books, picking up books, reading books.

Apparently Sarah Rowell, head of marketing for the Library, told the BBC “We want to get over the notion that libraries are quiet places where you’ll be shushed if you raise your voice … there’s room for activity, noise, joining-in and getting together with friends.” If you run into her at any point, buy her a drink or something. That’s how libraries should be. Reverent but not hands-off. Teach your kids to love books, not to treat them as untouchable museum objects or as irrelevances in the age of Facebook. I myself read mostly ebooks and listen to audiobooks, both of which the Library provides, and there’s the obvious question of why you need a big building to put books in when an iPhone app can do it instead. The Library of Birmingham is the answer to that question, and that Birmingham city council were prepared to build it is one of the reasons I really like it here.

Neil Gaiman told us that libraries are our friends. The late, great Borges thought that Paradise might be a kind of library, and he’d know. If the librarians of heaven want somewhere to model their place on, they could do a lot worse than the Library of Birmingham. Go visit. Today.

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