I'm recently back from a week in Birmingham (England, not Alabama). Birmingham is the Chicago of Britain — its second largest city with a transitioning economy, racial divisions, and a surprisingly strong city centre.
What was new on this return visit was the Library of Birmingham now under construction. In 2013, a stylish new building will replace the old city library. It will be physically integrated with the city Repertory Theatre and be the centerpiece not only for the city's cultural district but also for its "Big City Plan" to reposition the urban core for the 21st century.
I was more than pleased — delighted — to discover the Library of Birmingham because I've been fascinated by the phenomenon of new city libraries in our almost-post-book era. Look around North America and Europe and there are new central libraries everywhere. The kickoff for this wave was Chicago in 1991. Now there's a new central library in Denver, in San Francisco, in San Jose, in Salt Lake City, in Indianapolis, in Nashville, in Minneapolis, in Amsterdam, in Copenhagen , in Melbourne. There's one going up in San Diego within a block of Petco Park.
The Library of Birmingham: September 2011
Many of these new libraries are designed as active, multiuse spaces. The Library of Birmingham will have a movie theatre and art gallery as well as its connection to the REP. The San Jose public library and San Jose State University share the same building on the edge of campus. Vancouver and Salt Lake City libraries (both designed by Moshe Safdie) incorporate an arcade for small retailers and non-profit offices — plus SLC has a roof garden with a great view of the mountains.
There is a special connection between learning and community. I just downloaded my first ebook from the Multnomah County Library, but I still enjoy browsing the shelves at both my branch and the Central Library, and I'm always happy to see people lining up at 10 a.m.
Am I just nostalgic for the little Carnegie-funded library in Germantown, Ohio, that I utilized every time I visited my grandmother, where Mrs. Kindig let the kid browse the adult shelves? I don't think so. In a century when more and more public goods are privatized, public libraries remain democratic places. My small Albina branch is always full. There are always parents with kids. There are always grown-ups. The computers are always in use by people who can't afford their own Internet connections and iPhones.
That's what is good about Seattle's otherwise dubious new downtown library. It has shown the ability to attract a wide range of users — despite what I find to be a disastrously dysfunctional and self-indulgent design by its big time architect; I know I'm swimming against the critical tide, but see fuller comments on my website.
Portland, being the conservatively progressive place that it is, didn't indulge in brand name posturing like Seattle. We took a beautiful, century-old building and restored it to full functioning while maintaining the ability to open new neighborhood branches that are themselves integrated into multi-use buildings in Hollywood and Sellwood.
Small cities understand the same thing. Hood River has a new, very attractive public library facility, created a few years ago with a modern addition to its classic building. It's one block off the main business street, two blocks from the Hood River County Courthouse, and overlooks a new park. In 2010, however, the county deleted the library from the operating budget and asked the voters to fund a separate library district. The voters, to the surprise of county leaders, soundly rejected the proposal out of fear of new taxes in May. In November 2010, however, they approved a scaled-back district that has now reopened the library. In addition to tired arguments over taxes, much of the discussion in the letters section of the Hood River News centered on the need for actual libraries as places in the age of electronic information.
The decision makers in Hood River and Birmingham and Salt Lake City and Portland and Seattle (kudos for the investment if not the design) have it right. In the information age, we want and need visible and functional reminders that knowledge is a public good — both in ethical and economic terms.