Dear, Library of Birmingham

The Library of Birmingham is a beautiful building, nonetheless, I had my doubts that it was going to be functional from the start.

Having coped without a weekly visit to the old library for nine months, like many, I counted down the weeks to having access to a local library again. The excitement remains even while in the queue to squeeze into Birmingham’s shiniest gem. And during the time it took to get to each of the nine scintillating floors. There are escalators which then turn into a travelator and then lifts or stairs–your choice. I spend the whole day in there trying to see it all; now that I’m back in, you just try to get me out! 

During this day, I notice there were only three lifts for a building that fits 3000. We didn’t have 3000 people waiting to get in though so why the delay – too few doors?

Similarly, 3000 people trying to get to the bathroom is tricky. On the map, it’s delightful that there are facilities placed everywhere – I mean every corner you look. Except most of these are single occupancy lavatories so there’s either a wait or ‘cleaning’ sign to greet you. (If you’re in a hurry, by the way, the best ones to use are on the ground floor in the Rep. Plentiful and functional)

Some solutions

With the opening hours reduced this Spring, we’ll cast aside the reported £1 million wasted on an average website and the number of empty meeting rooms spotted.

In its first year, Birmingham’s newest tourist attraction is said to have received three million visitors, more than twice the previous library.

Surely, the idea is to get as many people in as possible to spend money and make this a sustainable public building it can so simply become, but what to spend cash on? There is only one coffee shop.

The days of libraries earning revenue from unpaid fines are gone – we can now renew books online or pop them into the external book deposit. There are plenty of other ways for the library to earn it’s living in order to retain its status as the must-see community building for all to access seven days a week.


Three million people deserve more than one coffee shop by the entrance. How about a fine dining restaurant, preferably with a view or a decent cafeteria with something for all at an everyday price? (see Amsterdam PL (Cost €80m). Another coffee shop/bar on one of the floors will bring in people to watch the sunset with a glass of something. Well they will when the library extends the hours to 10pm, like many cities around the world.

Have coffee served by people who love customers, promote the loyalty card (did you know they have one?) and install coffee machines that are not designed for self-service. They  do work in the ICC, which by the way is the same company, operating a cafeteria and their staff provide fantastic service.

Room Hire

With the view and the state of the art facilities, the library shapes up to be an impressive place to hold events. I was one of those sucked in by the glamour and then regretted it when it took me two months to book rooms. I saw empty rooms everywhere but I was told they were booked up.

The event service needs to be on a par with the hundreds of fantastic venues across this city. They need to match up to the friendliness of quirky Studio Venues, the food offerings of Etc. and the professionalism of ICC.

Eventually the library staff are responsive and I book rooms for several events. On more than one occasion I find I’m unable to have the air conditioning in this green library turned off without calling maintenance and waiting ‘up to four hours’! The staff bend over backwards to help you but just seem to be poorly trained and this  just capped a catalogue of errors over the course of several months.

I’ve organised events for years and worked with some fantastic venue people. We just need to get a few of those in and make the events department a winner here.

Be welcoming

Refrain from using hesitant council language (these chairs are for the use of library café customers only) to welcoming, customer friendly speak (you are welcome to come and purchase drinks and snacks from the café and enjoy them sitting here).

Call me old-fashioned, but a sign that says ‘lending library this way’ would be helpful in a library, right?

Business Centre

This can be the go to place for business starts ups – drop in, have your questions answered or be sign posted to someone that can help.

I understand we're in a community building and knowledge should be free. Nevertheless, how about charging a nominal fee for those who can afford it? Would you pay £10 for a drink and some mingling with lovely views? Or £15 for a workshop to learn some skills while admiring the busiest public library in Europe?

And the study rooms – can we just pay to book some of them for meetings?


For those of us (me) that adore libraries and reading, volunteering here is a dream gig. Who wouldn’t want a few hours of their month spent here? Only, at the time of writing, the library is not offering any opportunities.

Any cost factors to train volunteers are surely offset by the better service to customers = more customers = more revenue = more opening hours.

I say bring in an army of enthusiastic volunteers to over shadow some of the (understandable) gloom. 


Sadly, the last couple of times I’ve made it to the top, I’ve noted the Shakespeare room no longer has a person sitting at the desk watching over this key piece of wondrous heritage. It’s lovely to have someone there to answer questions or just have banter with. A perfect role for a volunteer. Frankly, I’m happy to move into that room!

Any more suggestions? Please, let’s hear them.

By Rickie J,  library geek, founder & editor of Birmingham Favourites

@RickieWrites @BrumFaves


Library of Birmingham – a green building for the future

Everyone loves the Library of Birmingham, recently voted as building of the year by readers of Architects’ Journal. Did you realise that it is the most environmentally friendly new building Birmingham has seen?
The most eye-catching environmental features are the living roofs.  They deliberately mimic the local topography, geology and flora, to attract invertebrates and birds that live locally.  The Discovery Terrace on Level 3 and the Secret Garden on Level 7, grow flowers that occur in wild areas around the canals and railways, along with fruit and aromatic herbs such as dill, sage and lavender which people grow in courtyards and window boxes around city centre apartments.  Level 10 features a brown roof, a rubble-strewn post-industrial landscape, to attract one of Birmingham’s most rare and iconic birds, the Black Redstart.  Bird boxes attract local species including the peregrine falcon.  Using three levels reflects the geodiversity of Birmingham – a ‘city of soft hills’, as described by Library architect Francine Houben.  The living roofs insulate in winter, cool in summer and alleviate flood risk by absorbing rainwater.

The Library opened during a mini-heatwave in September 2013.  How many modern buildings over-heat at the mere hint of summer?  Not so the Library of Birmingham.  Once more the Library works with the local environment rather than against it, to achieve a comfortable working temperature.  Cold groundwater from an aquifer under Broad Street is used to provide low-carbon air conditioning to the building.

The building is connected to the Broad Street Combined Heat and Power network (CHP).  This is a mini power station, which, unlike conventional power stations, re-uses the waste heat from electricity generation.  The CHP also supplies efficient, low-carbon electricity and heat to the ICC, the Rep theatre, the Hyatt, and other buildings around Broad Street.

These features helped the Library to achieve a prestigious ‘Excellent’ rating its the BREAAM sustainable buildings assessment.  Other environmentally friendly features include maximising daylight and natural ventilation, rainwater harvesting, and minimising energy used in construction.  Wind turbines and solar panels are good things but the Library shows that there are many ways to minimise the environmental impact of a building.

Of course, not everyone can use an aquifer to cool their building, or construct a living roof on their home.  But everyone can be inspired to do something to save energy and water, especially if you do things in the right order:

-        Don’t use energy and water that you don’t need.  Use your heating controls.  Don’t spend too long in the shower.  Leave the car at home if possible.

-        Use energy more efficiently.  Insulate the walls and roof of your home.  Use energy efficient appliances and heating systems.

-        When you’ve done the first two, then you can consider using renewable energy – solar hot water systems or solar electricity are a good investment.

The Library of Birmingham shows the future for high-quality, low carbon buildings in cities like Birmingham.

By Phil Beardmore who can be reached on @philbeardmore or take a look at his blog here.

A New Chapter

By Lou Knight

Anyone visiting the city will have seen the work being done on the 60 metre construction, since it began in October 2007. What surprised me most when I approached the new library of Birmingham was how it appeared to have always been stood there. Nestled between Baskerville House and seamlessly connected by a foyer to the Repertory Theatre, in its foreground, shallow steps wrap around an amphitheatre that leads into the basement section of the new library. The overlapping disc façade – a topic of controversy amongst locals during construction – stands proud; catching the light even on a rainy day and silently nodding to the industrial history of the city. Beyond the revolving door and bank of glass windows, concrete pillars reach upward and gleaming white floors squeak underfoot.

On the 9th floor, the sky view allows an impressive view of the city, even on a rainy and overcast day. Housed behind it, within the golden round of the building’s highest point, the memorial room encourages hushed whispers. Despite its modern surroundings, the room still carries the scent of old oak and well-worn pages. Designed by Chamberlain in the Gothic/Elizabethan style, original oak cabinets with floral inlays stretch 4 metres high. The stained glass and coving is reconstructed beautifully and compliments plush red carpet which bears a replica of the library’s modern exterior. First, third and fourth folio editions of Shakespeare’s works are home here, watched by the large white bust of the bard himself.

The winding paths and wildflower borders of the Secret Garden are vibrant with colour and reach around 3 sides of the building, to enjoy further views. Heading downwards from this point there are smoked glass partitions on each floor where computer, meeting and music rooms are connected by a round glass elevator tunnelling down through the centre. Curved columns of book shelves store 1 million books, with archives, map rooms and wi-fi access co-existing in this modern and traditional space.

The mezzanine just above the café is much darker than much of the space on the floors above and like the basement, where pod chairs and oversized bean bags encourage children to linger, offers a cosier setting. There is thought and care in the café’s offerings – from the focus on natural, fresh ingredients, to the friendly staff and disposable wooden cutlery. Cakes, sandwiches, wraps, soft drinks and a wide range of coffees and teas are reasonably priced considering this is the city centre. Both gardens offer outside seating for those that have brought food and drink on their travels.

Social gatherings, school excursions, pit stop meetings and introductions were occurring all around me, in different languages, as I explored the space. Beyond the impact and innovation of the building, that is what I best admired. As a nod to our past, present and future it flows seamlessly between all three in design and function. As a place for people to gain knowledge, convey ideas and meet new people it becomes more than a library. Part monument to knowledge, part post-modernist art, this is a local treasure for a global village.

Photos and words by Lou Knight, writer.  Contact Lou on Twitter: @louknightweb