September saw the doors of Birmingham’s new central library open up for checking out but the £189m cost of its development has left many wondering if it was worth it. There’s no doubt that libraries are an important hub for communities but the debate that’s been generated suggests that it’s too much to spend at a time when public libraries are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Figures indicate than since 2009 349 libraries have been closed and according to some sources there have been around 316 planned closures in 2013 alone. With some of these closures resulting from funding cuts of fractions of a million it’s hardly surprising that some people are questioning the amount of money spent on Birmingham’s new library.
For Birmingham’s book lovers though it isn’t bad news. That £189m has gone into a building which houses hundreds of thousands of books in as well as amphitheatre, and it even has a garden area. It can accommodate 3,000 visitors and offers services that support local businesses, young people and children.
It isn’t the first time that a so-called super library has been created in the UK, and it seems that they’re appearing at the expense of smaller branches. This year has also seen Liverpool’s main library re-open after a £50m refurbishment, as four branch libraries in the city have shut their doors for good.
Though the super libraries have proved popular the overall number of people visiting around the country has been falling, and rural areas have been hardest hit. Like other key services that every community once had, such as a post office, the library needs to find a way to adapt to changing times.
Technological innovations may have threatened the traditional library model but these new larger centres show how the Victorian approach to book lending can be adapted to appeal to an increasingly diverse demographic. Books are still at the forefront of this but it seems the new way is to offer a centre which delivers multiple ways of sharing knowledge and bringing communities together.
It does seem hard to justify the extreme cost of Birmingham’s Central Library, especially in the current economic climate. However the library’s director has gone on record saying that if the plans for the library had been assessed a year later, rather than in October 2007, they probably wouldn’t have gotten approval. It might also not look have looked so bad, if its construction hadn’t been in the shadow of so many other library closures.
If smaller rural libraries want to remain open 2014’s challenge for them is going to be to remain relevant and broaden their appeal to communities, while staying within their budget.