Monday, 23 September 2013

Some thoughts on the new Library of Birmingham

The CILIP AGM provided a golden opportunity to visit the new Library of Birmingham. What a treat was in store!

Set on Centenary Square in central Birmingham, not far from the previous Central Library site, and next to the prestigious Symphony Hall, The Library forms a striking addition to Birmingham's cityscape. Cleverly, it also affords excellent views over Birmingham, making this a building one to see, but also one to see from. I think that this forms a nice inward and outward looking symmetry; strikingly appropriate for a library and public building. This glass and metal quadrilateral and cylinder structure, shrouded with a metal gauze of overlapping metal circles, may not be to everyone's taste, but it is certainly very distinctive. The new Library  has generated much interest, and this striking exterior design must play a significant part in this.

View out from the Lower Ground Floor
Reportedly costing £183M, the library is set over 11 floors, with one of these being below ground level. Tantalising glimpses of the inside of the Lower Ground Floor are provided by an amphitheatre set into the approaching courtyard. This, I think, signals a clear message of openness and accessibility.  All public floors appeared to be well serviced by staff and enquiry points, the former distinctive in their royal blue waistcoats. The people flows through the building are excellent, with signage and guiding working to good effect. Three floors provide no access to the public (but include vital staff working spaces and archival  storage) and I'm sure that a "behind the scenes" tour would be fascinating.

Views within the building
The natural route-ways through the building, including escalators, moving walkways and a glass lift, provide excellent views, both inside and out. Travelling by escalator from the first to fourth floors provides vistas of the central book rotunda, harking back to an age of leather bound tomes arranged in a Victorian style circular library. This is juxtaposed with views outwards to banks of research computers and study spaces,  and through the exterior  windows and metal gauze work to the cityscape beyond.

The library has many attractions from a collection and service perspective. A fabulous children's  library (screams of excitement emanating from this large self contained space on the lower ground floor whilst I was there),  comprehensive collections, including local heritage and archives research services, a business information service, an impressive cartography library, a British Film Institute Mediatheque, and the Shakespeare Memorial Collection. Fantastic music collections were supplemented with music practice spaces and a piano for public use (an idea borrowed  from Cardiff Public Library?). The library also provides an extensive range of study spaces, formal and informal, including some excellent use of interesting contemporary seating. So there will be much to draw in the information-hungry public for many years to come.

However the building also boasts a number of attractions and these will serve well in enticing non-library users into the building and thence hopefully to engage with the service. The library plays host to two cafes, providing sustenance for the body in addition to the mind.  Two balcony gardens offer great relaxation spaces with superb views out over Birmingham, especially the Level 7 "Secret Garden". These are also valuable green spaces within the otherwise severely concrete and glass predominated central Birmingham zone, in addition to providing strong reminders to the origins of our foods. The Library also plays host to an interesting a varied range of permanent and temporary art works, captivating and engaging with regular and first time visitors alike.
Third Floor Discovery  Terrace Garden

7th Floor Secret Garden

Without doubt a star attraction is the Level 9 Shakespeare Memorial Room; an original feature from the city's Victorian library designed by Henry Chamberlain. This beautiful wood panelled room, with decorative plaster vaulted ceiling,  originally held the Birmingham Shakespeare Collection. This collection  is now safely held in the archives, but the Memorial Library provides a fascinating showcase for other pertinent Shakespeare related materials from the general collections. This room harks back to an age of philanthropy and a time when Birmingham grew in significance and size through trade, industry and education. It is therefore extremely fitting that it has been incorporated into this stunning new public building.

The library also boasts a number of  named rooms and areas, including: the Beatbox, chill-out lounge, Brainbox, Contemplation Room, and Discovery Gallery. Whether these will endure, or will invite non-traditional users into the Library, remains to be seen. These spaces can be used flexibly for the future and supplement a number of bookable study, meeting and training rooms. There is also an impressive studio theatre (venue for the CILIP AGM) which appeared to be supervised by the adjacent Rep theatre staff.

One 7 or 8 year old boy, clearly becoming increasing excited as he ascended through the building, declared to his mother "I feel like Charlie in the chocolate factory". His enthusiasm was shared by the majority of visitors. 

To this professional's eyes there appeared to be much cause for excitement in this public library building. The Library provides vibrant, pleasant space in which to work, read or relax; and a fantastic new focal point for this progressive city.  One can usually nitpick or criticise. Is the placement of fiction collections and the children's service on the lower ground floor really the best place? Most people on entering a multi-story building, will quite naturally "gravitate" upwards. There is therefore a danger that they may miss collections and services  that are of most relevance to them? But, this is my only concern.

On the third Saturday since opening,  the Library of Birmingham continued to welcome huge crowds, with much genuine interest and excitement from the public. There were extensive queues for the lifts to the upper floors, and constant streams of enthralled people on the escalators. One 7 or 8 year old boy, clearly becoming increasing excited as he ascended through the building, declared to his mother "I feel like Charlie in the chocolate factory". His enthusiasm was shared by the majority of visitors. Whether captivated by the traditional library collections and services, or by the architecture, space, cafes, balcony views, this building and service certainly has much potential to enthral, engage, motivate and encourage the user community. Like many of the best libraries, I'm sure that it will go on to play valued and key  roles in the creative, commercial, educational and leisure achievements of its users. Indeed, as Brian Gambles (Assistant Director - Culture, Birmingham City Council) indicated at the CILIP AGM, it already seems to be fulfilling more than could have been envisaged. The Library has done much to provide Birmingham with a renewed sense of pride, energy and identity. How many of us can truly say that about our library buildings and services?

Su Blackwell's A Mid Summer Night's Dream (2013)
on display in the Library.
The Library of Birminghan provides a space for inspiration, sharing,
culture, learning and discovery.

Photographs are by the author.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

CILIP - Crisis in engagement?

This year's CILIP AGM was held in the new Library of Birmingham, on a Saturday. It was disappointing to note, therefore, that attendance was only marginally more that that for last year's AGM  held in Newcastle upon Tyne. Given the excitement generated by two controversial agenda items, does this continue to signal low levels of professional engagement by the membership?
John Dolan, Phil Bradley and Annie Maguer (all seated). The AGM commences.

In a professional membership association of more than 14000 members, isn't it alarming that only ca. 170 members  (<1.5%) attended the Annual General Meeting? (1).  Are we such an apathetic bunch that the lures of a new public library that  has received considerable media interest, and the excitement of votes on new name for the Association and of no confidence in the Minister for libraries in England, Ed Vaizey, that a trip to Birmingham is too difficult? Perhaps the costs of travel / accommodation, pressures of time, family or working commitments prevail? OK, so be it. But, if that is the case why did so few members register their proxy votes?

Fewer than 900 members registered their proxy votes, meaning that active engagement in voting at this year's AGM (those, in attendance, plus those voting by proxy) was barely over 1/14th  or 7% of membership. This is significantly below levels of participation experienced in UK general or local elections (2010 General Election turnout 65.1%. In local elections turnout is generally lower ca. 30% upwards (e.g. see 2013 Local Election results ).  Some time, and the price of a stamp, surely is warranted for full engagement in your professional membership association?

Of course failure to attend the AGM in person, or to register a proxy vote, might not always signal a member's apathy. A member may be ambivalent about the name change, or assume that a vote of no confidence in Ed Vaizey, was deserved and guaranteed. However, I find these arguments to be weak. "Information and Library Professionals UK" (with the dreaded acronym ILPUK),  is surely little improvement on our current CILIP, which at least recognises that we are a chartered body, and is not fraught with problems if, in 2014, Scotland votes for independence, and the UK is no more. Further, is a vote of no confidence in Ed Vaizey really such a good move? Won't this sour the future possibilities of helpful dialogue between CILIP and the Minister? Is a vote of no confidence, in this instance, a bit of a "toothless animal", with little prospect of positive impact or assistance? Yes, a vote may win us a few friends, but will our collective clout be any greater for this? I suspect not.

However, where CILIP has failed is in enabling more members to easily participate in this important democratic exercise, in moving with the times and investing in online or telephone voting. In an age of social media, online collaboration and remote working,  it is clearly time for CILIP to take the apathy and engagement bull by the horns, and enable all to exercise their association's democratic functions by using new technologies. If online and telephone voting were introduced should we then be looking to move to compulsory voting? But that's a whole new can of worms!

Footnote 1. It was also interesting to consider the age profile of those attending the AGM. As one colleague said to me, sotto voce, "CILIP needs to recruit some younger members - just look around you". Thank heavens then, that this AGM approved free student membership from 2014. We must all work hard to enthuse and retain these cohorts of student members. They are the future of our profession, and of our professional association.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

A change is as good...

I've recently returned from secondment with CILIP Cymru Wales. What did I hope to achieve from secondment and were these hopes realised?
Celebrating all of the nominees
Conference high-point. Celebrating the nominees for the Welsh Librarian of the Year
award. Image (c) CILIP Cymru Wales,  2013. 

I've been a member of CILIP for more than 20 years, and it's been a guiding light in my career, especially in providing a formal structure for professional qualifications. Having a chance to work more formally with CILIP in Wales, aside from my role with CDG Wales, I hoped would provide me with:
  • opportunities to update my awareness of library policy matters in Wales and across the UK
  • to develop my skills in Policy Analysis and in formulating official responses - gaining an "outside" view on these processes
  • freedom to experiment with new technologies including web-casting, blogging and other social media
  • practical experience of stakeholder management - CILIP's members and other key bodies in Wales and across the UK
  • an "in at the deep-end" reminder of event management best practice - in organising CILIP Cymru Wales' two-day annual conference.

Were your aims met? 

Yes, and more so. I return to the Welsh Government with deeper enthusiasm for the wider roles of librarians in society. I hope that we can harness this energy in extending the important work of Library & Archive Services in promoting and improving WG staff members information skills, and in being internal advocates for the profession. I'm also keen to share some of my experiences in partnership working, and in using social media to develop and maintain effective two-way communication with stakeholders. My professional network of contacts has increased significantly, and so I'm hoping to continue using this to identify new ways of working, and in professional updating more generally.

And the high points? 

Definitely helping to establish the very successful Welsh Librarian of the Year Award. It was humbling speaking to all five of the shortlisted librarians and finding out about their successes and huge positive impacts on the communities that they serve. I also gained a lot in helping to organise the Annual Conference. It's great to know that over 200 people benefitted through attending this vibrant event, and had the chance to share their experiences with colleagues from across Wales.

What next? 

I'm looking forward to: re-familiarising myself with my role of Legal Librarian and Team Leader; sharing my learning and experience; and in helping Library & Archive Services develop for the future. I have also been asked to maintain my involvement with the Welsh Librarian of the Year Award and I'm really thrilled to have a further opportunity to celebrate the innovation, achievements and impacts of librarians and information professionals from across Wales.

Well they do say that a change is as good as a rest! It's true.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

CILIP Cymru Wales - Challenge - Bling my Conference Bag

I can now rest easy. My task is completed. I have sewing machine hunch-back just to prove it! My conference bag has had the bling treatment.

When this fun task was first mentioned I wondered what does CILIP mean to me? Could this influence how I jazz up my bag? Well, perhaps! CILIP gives me direction, it guides me, it's been a beacon throughout my professional life. Hang-on, beacon …. lighthouse. Hmmm, I can do something with that.

But the influence didn't stop there. Whilst on secondment with CILIP Cymru I've been welcomed by all of our active Special Interest Groups, but none more so than by the Youth Libraries Group. Through their Carnegie / KateGreenaway short-listing day I've been reintroduced to the fabulous world of children's illustrated books. The influence of a recent trip to the Seven Stories (the National Centre for Children's Books) Museum in Newcastle, and a display of Julia Donaldson's work, including the Snail and the Whale, can also be seen in my design. But I think there may also be elements of “The Lighhouse Keeper's Lunch” in there too. Oh, and if you fancy it, “The Seagull”. Any others?

Granny's Singer sewing machine came down from the loft. Blow the dust off of it. Lost the casing key …. manage to gain access, using a screwdriver. That wonderful black and gold miracle of domestic engineering lay safely stored underneath; … still shiny, and with a wonderfully faint aroma of three-in-one oil. Ah, bliss. (OK, it's a bloke thing!) You know, I think using a sewing machine is a bit like riding a bike. Once mastered – never forgotten.

So the seascape came first. Really enjoyed sewing in the wave a pattern on that. Then my psychedelic lighthouse. Sorry about the colours but I didn't have any spare white fabric. The button at the top, represents the light, and the pink band, a beacon of light. Hmmm … pink band … guiding me home. Freud would have a field day! At this point I realised that my design was taking influence from my subconscious and therefore the whale and seagulls were added. It was difficult to stop there, but fortunately I did stop. So no snail on tail of the whale!

The final touch was adding a t-shirt iron-on transfer of my version of the CILIP Cymru Wales logo. I've put four on the back too, just in case some critter tries to steal my lovely bag.

So there we are. My “blinged” bag. So ok, it isn't perfect. But it's mine, and I think it's great. My next project might also involve quilting to give a bit of a three dimensional effect. 

PS. Two final confessions. 
  • The bag isn't actually a CILIP Cymru Conference bag. Sorry! When I came to look for one at home all I could find was a Welsh Government “Ask a Question” bag. Yikes – sorry. (I still love it though!). And it's been thoroughly CILIP-i-fied now!
  • I had help with the seagulls. :-)

Friday, 25 January 2013

"The sound of which was silence for the place."

Hello, hello, hello.

          This is by meagre apology, dear reader.

                      I have, temporarily, abandoned you,

                                But I promise to return!

In the meantime please follow my musings at the CILIP Cymru Wales blog.

The only house
Beyond where they were was a shattered seedpod.
And below roared a brook hidden in trees,
The sound of which was silence for the place.
Robert Frost "The Generations of Men" quoted at 

I'm currently on secondment with CILIP Cymru Wales. Whilst I'm truly loving this fantastic experience I hope to return to my usual role in June 2013.