Central Library not bursting at the seams

Loads of space in the new library of Birmingham, but what’s it for? wonders Alan Clawley.

Birmingham Central Library

Birmingham Central Library

Any visitor to the Central Library today will see a run-down building with fewer staff and more vacant floorspace than 10 years ago when plans were first mooted to replace the then 25 year old building by a new and bigger one.

But if the service really is shrinking before our eyes why move into a building that is claimed to be 25 per cent bigger than the present one? The figures (provided by the council) are roughly speaking 24,500 to 31,500 square metres, an extra 7,000 sq m. to play with. I have exchanged many emails with chief librarian Brian Gambles over this issue. He says that the new library will be 15% more efficient to run so it will need fewer staff. But what is to fill the extra 7,000 sq m of floorspace?

Birmingham Rep and new library by MeccanooA point constantly denied by Gambles, is that not all of the extra floorspace accommodates the core function of a library. Gambles hints that other functions, such as the new theatre (4,000 sq m) and other activities, like Reception, and the outdoor Amphitheatre, using space shared with the REP (6,800 sq m). are part of the BUSINESS of running a library.  However to my mind, these are non-essential aspects of a public library and they will use up all the extra space gained in the new building.  This leaves the core library occupying a floor space of only 20,700 sq m.

Gambles has rightly demanded a proper archive store in the new building and this will occupy floors 5 & 6 – each around 2,000 sq m, a total of 4,000 sq m. compared with the 1,416 sq m he has at present. When I wrote in the Stirrer that I thought I had heard Gambles say to the Scrutiny Group that he would only be managing four floors as a library he accused me of ‘slurs lies and distortions’. Yet, I may have been quite near the truth. If we deduct the Archives floors, which will not be accessible to the public, this leaves the core public library function with a floor area of 16,100 sq m – or near enough four floors.

The truth is hard to find, but I suspect that the claim that the ‘library’ is bigger is a piece of political bravado, designed to justify the huge cost of the project. It is in fact, smaller, so perhaps by shrinking the service now Gambles is preparing to shoehorn the library service it into a building that gives him less space than he has now.  He argues that it is the ‘Library of Birmingham’ that is bigger than the Central Library. It actually sounds bigger. He has always shied away from an objective discussion of sizes, saying that size isn’t the main thing; its quality that counts. Unfortunately it seems we will have to wait until the doors of the new library open to find out who was telling the truth.

The extra space has to be paid for. The cost of building work for the REP amounts to £21 million, all borrowed and being repaid by council taxpayers. Will the floorspace that is not dedicated to the core function be used to generate income? This is not such a fanciful idea. It was actually suggested by consultants.