Joseph Priestley (yes, the very same lunar man, and discoverer of oxygen) had his hand in the original 'Birmingham Library', founded in 1779, run on a 'subscription' basis, but very much to address issues of equality and access to information and social improvement:
'this institution can never answer the purpose of party, civil or religious, but, on the contrary, may be expected to promote a spirit of liberality and friendship among all classes of men without distinction.'
The next birmingham library was built on Union Street, and was very much tied to the 'Free Libraries' movement in Birmingham, then the BMI library, now the Priestley Library, then Edmund street, where the 'Shakespeare library' comes (soon to be top floor of new Library). Throughout the last 150 years there has also been the growth of community libraries, all based on the principles of the 'Free Library' movement, and Joseph Priestley's library 250 years ago.
One distinct difference between our new library plans and the older libraries is the partnership with the Rep. For young people in Birmingham, both these institutions - Libraries and Theatres, there are very different perceptions:
For Theatres, the age old of perception of young people is that theatres are elitist. To get young people into theatres is a significant achievement for our Rep. For our libraries, the perception is almost the exact opposite - Young people may not take full advantage of the range of services in libraries, but they are certainly present in them. So much so, they are often seen as a problem in our libraries - For many Libraries in Birmingham, to keep (large numbers of 'troublesome') young people out of the library is sometimes seen as an achievement.
Take Small Heath, a library built as part of a school, leisure and community centre complex. The original 70s design included a doorway directly between the school and library. Photo opposite is that doorway between school and library bricked up precisely because of the problems some young people were causing in the library. The librarians struggle to cater for the huge numbers of people, young and old, using libraries.
So potentially Libraries and Theatres - a match made in heaven? The picture is far more complicated, and a great challenge long after the new library is built, particularly as the cost of the library has huge implications for the library service as a whole. We must keep sacred to the valuable principles of 'free libraries' so well represented across all of Birmingham, providing free access to information to all, embracing new means of access to information, while maintaining old.
The discussion continues on how the library space inside is used and maintained, service and access provided, we need to open up to everyone in Birmingham, particularly our young people, a discussion on the value of Free Libraries and their place in our communities.