When John Bayley proposed to Iris Murdoch she suggested going somewhere romantic to discuss the idea…the London Library!
Last week, on the day it was opened, I climbed the neon escalator of the world’s newest library – the £189m Library of Birmingham, which over nine floors houses a collection of one million books, more than 200 public access computers, theatres, an exhibition gallery and music rooms! This is exciting at a time when public libraries are hit by the double whammy of government cuts and increasing use of the internet.
Birmingham library was formally opened by Malala Yousafzai, the teenager shot in the head in Pakistan by the Taliban for championing women’s rights. Malala spoke about how books were weapons to beat terrorism and how she believed that the only way to global peace was through reading, knowledge and education.
Where has this extraordinary young girl learned such composure and confidence? Through books, she insists. Some books travel with you back centuries, others take you into the future, some take you to the core of your heart and others take you into the universe, she said.
Looking at the fabulous collection here in Birmingham – its most valuable books are copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio and John James Audubon’s Birds of America – worth between £6m and £7m each- we can only hope there are more like her. But it isn’t these books that will change the world, beautiful though they are. It’s ordinary stories, novels, biographies, philosophies and histories. And the serendipity of finding something in a library is especially fun; who else has had pleasure in this book and what did they make of it?
The new Birmingham library is a stunning piece of architecture with roof gardens overlooking the heart of Birmingham and a wild flower meadow. I am sure Iris Murdoch would have found it an intensely romantic place. Libraries aren’t just worthy places of silence any more they are vibrant, buzzy, humming exciting places to be. I’m glad that my own grandfather came to Birmingham from Krakow so that when I finally get around to writing his extraordinary story I shall have an excuse to research there. For the moment I shall continue to admire the steel girders eventually supporting my own personal library (well a study or an office, in truth) but it will house quite a lot of books that are very special to me so I am happy to call it, rather grandly – a library. Really a library is just a nice place to be. Let’s have more of them.