Quite a year. For one library, for a city.
We wanted to make a difference, and we certainly did. From the moment that the wonderful Malala Yousafzai declared the Library of Birmingham open for business on September 3, 2013, there has hardly been time to draw breath, let alone for reflection on so very many high points and the inevitable challenges we have confronted.
One million people streamed through the doors in the first 100 days, an astonishing 10,000 per day, and they keep on coming. They come for all reasons – to use the library and the archives, to view the architecture and enjoy the experience of being in great public spaces, for events, exhibitions, meetings, to study and to research.
We have learned new skills, surprising ones for librarians and archivists, of crowd control and queue busting, as well as event management, exhibition curation and venue hire.
Above all, we have enjoyed the response from the people of Birmingham, who have taken the library to their hearts and made it their own. I’ve lost count of the number of times and the many ways in which that sense of pride has been expressed, how many “wows” I have heard, how many photographs taken, how many children discovering the library and the learning and reading it contains.
It is the happy faces I will remember most.
The library has truly brought the world to Birmingham. I’m so pleased that I started keeping a visitors’ book for overseas delegates – official delegations from more than 30 countries have visited, and of course many more casual tourists. It’s a source of great pride that the world believes we have done something special, created a new wonder of the world, here in Birmingham.
We’ve also welcomed so many celebrities, a real privilege to have been able to show off Birmingham’s library to the Duke of Cambridge, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Man Booker Prize-winning and many more authors, media personalities like Ian Hislop, Shami Chakrabarti, Birmingham’s musical and showbiz elite from Jeff Lynne to Jasper Carrott, the cast of The Archers, and so many more.
Our events team has risen to the challenge of delivering a diverse programme of events and activities, and I have so enjoyed seeing the vision turn into reality.
The vision has always been to create spaces where a rich programme of events brought the stunning architecture to life, and encouraged learning and cultural experience. Highlights? So many to choose: perhaps 250 children singing for Children in Need in the Book Rotunda; Tipitina rounding off the Birmingham Jazz Festival on the Discovery Terrace on a beautiful July evening; Joseph Chamberlain College’s Fashion Show; the fabulous Library of Cultures exhibition; 3 Summers musical in the Studio Theatre we share with the REP; becoming the new home for the Birmingham Literature Festival.
Yes, it is a library, but a very new and different sort of library!
A source of great pride too has been the extent to which the Library has been recognised through many awards. To be shortlisted for the Stirling Prize for Architecture is a huge accolade for the city (fingers crossed for October’s announcement!) but we can also celebrate many other national and regional awards for design and construction.
As the autumn awards season gets into its stride we hope for more success. Watch this space! It was a great thrill for me personally to be honoured with an MBE, but the whole fantastic team really deserves to be honoured.
All plain sailing then? Well, not exactly.
The extraordinary success that greeted the opening of the library brought its own pressures.
We have had so much to learn about a complex building, and it all remains “work in progress” – a year on, I can’t regard this as finished business.
New ways of working and new skills to learn have brought their own pressures for staff, and the early days were hard for some.
Looking back, I’m often asked what I would do differently: there are many details, here a corridor that is too narrow, there a room which is not serving its intended purpose, there a technical matter still not fully resolved. But, overall, the impact of the library has been hugely positive, and the reception given to the design has testified to the strength of our vision and the extent to which the architects have delivered form and function, in near-perfect harmony.
This has never been about just building a fine library, just delivering a major construction project on time and under budget, it has always been our aim to play a leading role in the continuing process of reshaping this great city, and redefining its image for its citizens and to the outside world. This we have done.
Bring on the next chapter.
Brian Gambles MBE, Assistant Director – Culture, Birmingham City Council