Birmingham, Britain’s second city, is opening with great fanfare the new central Library of Birmingham, described as Europe’s largest lending library and costing some £188 million ($291 million).

Funded from the city’s own coffers, the library building has an eye-catching (and somewhat controversial) design from Dutch architectural practice Mecanoo, and is one of the iconic projects in a cycle of urban regeneration under Birmingham City Council’s Big City Plan that also includes the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, being redeveloped as part of the new library complex. But the giant and highly prestigious new monument only throws into relief the crisis in the rest of the UK’s library sector, where the local funding of libraries allows for some authorities to erect costly new facilities while others are driven to cut their services to near zero.

Birmingham certainly has the user numbers to justify such efforts and expenditure. A 2011 survey found that the library was the UK’s second most used, attracting 1,197,350 visitors in 2010-11. And as Britain’s second most populous city, Birmingham also appears to have enough money to fund the development.

The new library’s predecessor, a monumental essay in the New Brutalist grey concrete vein, is now scheduled for demolition and will likely be little missed.

The old Birmingham Library building

But the plight of Britain’s other libraries has taken a lot of the gloss off the new opening, and UK commentators have not been slow to point up the irony. The lack of faith in central and government library policy has crystallized into a campaign flagged simply as “Ed Vaizey must go,” targeting the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries with theoretical responsibility for library services. And according to the UK’s Public Libraries News blog, “337 libraries (295 buildings and 42 mobiles) are currently under threat or have been closed/left council control since 1/4/13 out of c. 4265 in the UK.”

As noted student of public library architecture Ken Worpole writes in the Guardian, contemporary civic enthusiasm for showcase library architecture may have much to do with the perceived value of libraries as “the living room in the city,” facilities with multiple uses and considerable value as civic spaces, a trend encouraged by the new digital and multimedia developments that push libraries away from the hushed reading-room atmosphere of yesteryear. But the motives he cites for these developments don’t inspire much confidence. If library facilities are going to be made hostage to city fathers’ itch for prestige projects and civic one-upmanship, then that hardly inspires any confidence that politicians and bureaucrats are living up to their responsibilities to educate and inform their citizens.

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Paul St John Mackintosh is a British poet, writer of dark fiction, and media pro with a love of e-reading. His gadgets range from a $50 Kindle Fire to his trusty Vodafone Smart Grand 6. Paul was educated at public school and Trinity College, Cambridge, but modern technology saved him from the Hugh Grant trap. His acclaimed first poetry collection, The Golden Age, was published in 1997, and reissued on Kindle in 2013, and his second poetry collection, The Musical Box of Wonders, was published in 2011.


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