Among the first things you might notice are the faces of your fellow visitors: wide eyes, quiet smiles, inward pleasure. It is a year since Malala Yousafzai officially opened the Library of Birmingham and there is still a buzz of excitement in the air.

This Library is cinematic in feel, both inside and out. When the building was finished, there were mutterings that its glamour masked an absence of books. When I interviewed Will Self at last year’s Birmingham Literature Festival – an event held in the Library’s very own theatre – he speculated that we are now in the post-Gutenberg age: that print culture is fading, together with the mental habits that go with it. So what is this gleaming new building?

Well, I can confirm that despite the mutterings, it is still full of books: it is, after all, Europe’s largest public library. Moreover, it not only houses books, but – as in its central rotunda, a visual echo of the old British Library Reading Room – it also uses them to create a kind of theatre of what books represent: the ideas, possibilities and freedoms that Malala spoke of in her speech at its opening.

Books, in this sense, are hopefully here to stay, but the Library of Birmingham is also a testament to the fact that it is no longer enough for libraries merely to house them: they must aim to activate, make public, that theatre of the mind. The Library of Birmingham, quite properly, supports a multitude of purposes. It gives its users access to the Birmingham Film Institute archive – a treasure in itself – together with music, maps, computers, space…

Space: those areas left open for the unpredictable – those things that have not yet been thought of. Having performed at the Library and organised public events there, that’s something that I value highly, and the Library needs to foster that role. A library should act as a cultural ecology in itself.

The Library has further significance for the city of Birmingham. Whenever I am there, it is clear that the Library is attracting visitors from across Europe: last week I saw Italian students, French photographers and German tourists over the course of just a few minutes. The Library is part of Birmingham’s reimagining – both of itself and the world we inhabit.

The twenty-first century is a good time to rediscover the public value of libraries, because the very existence of these institutions has been put under threat. The stakes are high. In this pessimistic age of reprivatisation, libraries are places you can go to be free, for free. They are gateways to our history and to the wonders of human consciousness.

In its first year of life, the Library of Birmingham has taken hold at the heart of the city: that is a triumph, and a cause for hope.

More information about the Library of Birmingham

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Gregory Leadbetter

Gregory Leadbetter

Director of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing at Birmingham City University
Gregory Leadbetter

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