Birmingham’s libraries must be transformed in to a service dedicated to inspiring a new generation of users, a major conference in the city was told.

More than 250 librarians from 21 countries gathered in Birmingham this week for a conference on the future of library services.

The event at Birmingham’s Town Hall included a tour of the new Library of Birmingham, due for completion in 2013.

The library’s project director Brian Gambles and its designer Francine Houben, of Mecanoo Architecten, also addressed the conference in a key note speech.

Libraries worldwide are grappling with funding difficulties and digital innovations that make it easy to access information online from home.

In Britain, a survey showed that 50 per cent of the British population had not used a public library in the past 12 months.

While in Birmingham, 37 per cent of the city’s population saw no reason to ever visit a library.

Henriette de Kok, a library director from The Netherlands, said: “We don’t know what libraries will be in the 21st century.

“People and politicians are saying: do we need a public library? Everything is digital, everybody has e-books. I don’t agree. I think it is very important to get a balance between the physical library and the digital library.”

She believed the “core task” of libraries is to give free access to information.

“In my library, in a town of 300,000 inhabitants, we did an investigation and 70 per cent of visitors are not coming to borrow books from our library,” she said. “They are looking for information, to meet people, to study, for the wi-fi, to read magazines or read with children.

“So it is not the only task of a library to lend books.”

Ms de Kok said the Library of Birmingham was a “very attractive concept”.

“Birmingham has a concept for what the library will be in the future,” she said.

Jay Jordan is president and chief executive of OCLC, a library technology company that has operated in Birmingham for 30 years and organised the conference.

He said: “Libraries are under huge pressure around the world from a budgetary standpoint. How do you optimise the physical space and the digital offerings that you can provide?

“[The library] is not a book repository anymore. It cannot be – then it will go away. I think most librarians around the world understand that.”

The 10-storey development in Birmingham’s Centenary Square will feature an outdoor amphitheatre, garden terraces, a recording studio and free access to the National Film Archive.

Traditional lending services will be complemented by 24/7 online access, a hub for writing CVs and gaining qualifications, children’s storytelling and arts and crafts workshops. It will also be physically linked to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

“We want to redesign the service. We want to be inspirational,” said Brian Gambles, project director for the Library of Birmingham as he spoke to the conference.

Traditional notions of libraries, he said, are: “Built on the notion of the book and information as commodities in which the library deals and what I wanted to move towards is a transformational notion of the library service.

“Of course you’ll get the books, the information, but above all what the library should be about is changing minds.”

The library is seen as an image-boost, for the city as much as libraries in general.

“I think this is just huge for Birmingham,” said Mr Gambles. “It’s time Birmingham had a refreshed image. The library from a visual image offers that in huge measure.”

The library’s exterior is covered with an intricate metal facade, to echo the gasometers, tunnels and canals that fuelled Birmingham’s industrial growth.

The project will cost £188.8 million to complete. Is it worth that price?

Mr Gambles acknowledged that the timing of their application in 2007, before the financial crisis hit, was key to the project being given the go-ahead.

“But I think it’s also true that if you stop economic activity, then you are storing up even more problems for the future,” he said. “I think what the library has done is inject confidence in Birmingham.”

So far, the project has employed 250 people from Birmingham, with an additional 75 apprentice schemes. They have also been working with 20 homeless people from the city, just over half of whom have settled into jobs.

Architect Francine Houben said: “I call it a cathedral, I call it the people’s palace. It’s a new role, but they’re very important. It’s necessary to invest in your own population, so they develop, so they have access to knowledge.”

Ms Houben, founding partner and director of Mecanoo architecten, said: “Twenty years ago I designed the library of the technical university in Delft and everybody said it would not be necessary anymore.

“But it’s the most visited spot in Delft, because people like to meet each other. You feel part of the world.”

She hopes the new library will become “an unforgettable new space in Birmingham, that is inviting for everybody’’.

I think libraries above all are places in the community,” said Mr Gambles.

“There just aren’t that many places where people can go freely, unchallenged, with no entrance fees, and there are huge amounts of resources that you can access free of charge.”

He is looking at a number of ways to help fund the library through commercial activities.

“There are a number of commercial activators that we have in the library to maximise an area that I think we’ve been particularly poor at, which is ensuring the library delivers the maximum amount of commercial return it can from a huge footfall,” he told the conference.

“Without compromising free access to services which are currently free, the library can maximise its income by being a disciplined manager of the retail operation, the catering operation, events and conferences.”

Mr Jordan said the Library of Birmingham had become an “architectural icon”.

“It’s a space where you want to go,” he said. “This can be a powerful draw to the city.”

He said: “The other really interesting innovation that happened here in Birmingham – the public library of Birmingham, the University of Birmingham and Aston University conspired back in 1969 the Birmingham Libraries Co-operative Mechanisation Project.

“It was an experiment that was basically a cataloguing and inter-library lending activity. So there’s a wonderful tradition of library innovation right here in Birmingham.”

Mr Jordan said: “Libraries have the treasures of humanity. Who else is going to be responsible for that preservation? Not commercial companies. The pace of change is daunting in a way, but you still have this 1,000-year institution, the library, that has faithfully preserved human history.”

He hoped that attendees of the conference would “go away and do something different”.

“As long as they’re inspired to go and do something different to serve their public, that would be wonderful,” he said.