Friday, 6 September 2013

The Library of Birmingham

It's an impressive building, no doubt about it. The truth, of course, is that they took the most expensive option, with the least shelf space of all the alternatives, and saddled the city with so much debt that it's going to take a generation to pay it off. Meanwhile, despite the flashy new premises, the library is suffering. I'll get back to that.

There was quite a queue to get in, which got a lot worse during the day. There were a lot of security on, and they were still there the following day. I hope they won't be a permanent feature. Inside was a stall with a team of commentators blathering on non-stop. The noise is quite distracting if you're in the fiction section at the bottom, and I don't get the idea.

Further up in the building, it's a lot quieter. Shelves aren't labelled, signposting is poor, and some of the shelving almost seems random. I can't make out why the Romans would be stuck in the middle of modern European history. These are teething problems, however. There's a lot of empty shelf space, and more books shelved, as far as I can see, than there were in the old library.

The problems emerged when I checked over the Biblical Studies section. Twenty years ago, it was good, but there isn't much to attract me now. There's the odd book; they have several on the 'Gospel of Judas', for instance, which attracted a bit of publicity a few years ago. But the heart of any Biblical Studies library will always be its collection of commentaries. To keep up, they need, roughly speaking, to buy one academic commentary on each canonical book every 5-10 years. It hasn't been happening. There are a few things, like the Anchor Bible volumes on the Apocrypha, which are useful, useful, as my own collection is pathetic on Apocrypha. But by and large, their books duplicate mine, at least where they interest me. It's not a section I'd go very far to use, and that's a pity, given that this is a major national library.

A library is only as good as its books, and despite what some are saying, books is what it's all about. If possible, there should be space for ancillary acitivities; literary groups and author readings, for instance, and a cafe (the ones in the new library are privatised, and apparently the seats are uncomfortable) where you can discuss books, or read them over your coffee. But a library is only as good as its books.

A library with national standing, such as this aspires to be, needs more than that, of course. It needs a teacm of skilled librarians, a pool of experts on every subject under the sun, to guide tham on buying decisions, and a decent budget for purchases. In five years' time, or fifty, nobody's going to come to admire the building. They'll come for the books, or not at all.

And then, of course, the collection needs to be accessible to all. It won't be if it's privatised and run for profit, as the council seems to want.

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