As the new Library for Birmingham begins to take shape, Birmingham Post Editor Alun Thorne spoke to the man tasked with creating a facility fit for the new century.
When it comes to job satisfaction, you are unlikely to meet a man more content with his lot than Brian Gambles.
Mr Gambles is the assistant director of culture at Birmingham City Council or to be more specific, he’s the man in charge of the city’s libraries.
Ordinarily one might imagine it’s a job that doesn’t register too highly on the Richter Scale but then these are no ordinary times.
“In my line of work this is as good as it gets”, said Mr Gambles.
And who would possibly question that? After years of wrangling, the new Library of Birmingham is taking shape in Centenary Square while the eventual demolition of the Central Library now looks almost certain after the decision by the last government not to list the John Madin-designed structure.Related content
Indeed, the debate about the merits of the old library and the design of the new Mecanoo-designed building continue to rage but this is all part of the exciting process of change, according to Mr Gambles.
“The architecture has been much talked about and, of course, we are interested in that,” he said. “It is better to be to be talked about than not be talked about at all, and I think it will be better than people may think – it will certainly impose itself.”
The Birmingham Post itself has played a part in the library debate and a question within the Pen Portraits section of the paper asking whether the Central Library should stay or go revealed that nine out of 10 respondents felt that it should be demolished.
However, it is a debate that is taking place much further afield than Birmingham.
“A few years ago I was just about ready for a glass of wine on a Friday night when the phone rang and it was a radio station in Boston where its town hall is of a similar inverted ziggurat design to the Central Library and they were having a debate on its merits,” said Mr Gambles.
"What was interesting from that was that we look back at buildings that are 40 years old and may think they are awful but if you look back at a building that is 80 years old then that’s heritage.
"Regardless of your thoughts on the old library itself, what is certain is that the town planning of Birmingham in the 1960s and 70s certainly left a lot to be desired.”
Nevertheless, the debate may continue to rage but the design has now been finalised and the build programme is on budget and a week ahead of schedule with an opening date earmarked for June 2013.
Now, according to Mr Gambles, it is time to move the debate on and talk about what the new library needs to be to serve the demands of the city in the coming century and what a library of the future will look like.
“The library has given us the chance to have a conversation about what’s a library for the 21st century,” he said. “What you have on the one side of this debate is those who like the printed book, as do I, but its future is not in my hands.
"For me the library needs to be well positioned for the future and with the fantastic collections that are housed at the library being the history of the city, it is a fitting place to debate about the future.
"For me a library needs to be about a hotbed of ideas and knowledge growth while the debate is about physical materials and I’m not sure it actually matters how that is done.
“We have the opportunity to be at the centre of the knowledge economy that is going to be crucial to the future prosperity of the city.”
Mr Gambles said that it was important that the library joined forces with businesses, educational establishments and the man in the street to ensure that the new library lives up to its full potential.
“It is a question of partnership. When people ask what services will be at this library, it is difficult to answer. We need to turn that question around and ask what would you like to do in this knowledge space?
"We need to ask agencies what role can you make that improves the knowledge agenda in the city. What I would like before we open is a whole range of partnerships working together because knowledge is going to have to underpin the next stage of Birmingham’s history.
"For instance, it seems to me that the library would appear to be the perfect vehicle to develop links between the universities and be a place to show off these places of amazing creativity.
“I suppose it could be seen within what David Cameron might call Big Society but I would call it co-production where we are saying, ‘don’t tell us what you want us to deliver but how can you help us deliver the services you want’.
“I think we need to take risks and I believe those people who want to protect the more traditional approach ignores the way in which young people function socially and the ways in which they learn.
"We have an opportunity to shape how libraries in the 21st century will push learning and, without being immodest, it has to be said that this city is doing something quite outstanding.
“If you look at the role of the library as a triangle then at the base is information – the data or the book – which you can sell, or lend or give away. In the middle is learning and the way of learning has changed - you have technology but a different approach to sharing - and at the apex is knowledge and I can conceive of something that doesn’t lend but can still be a library.
“Ultimately, I can see something without books – although Birmingham is and will remain full of books – that could still be a library.”