Chamberlain%20square%20birmingham%2014 08 83.%20photo%20by%20andrew%20miller
23 Aug 2017

Collecting Paradise:
Memories of Birmingham Central Library

In June, Birmingham Museum’s Collecting Birmingham Team met in the lounge of the Wellington Pub to collect memories of Birmingham city centre’s now demolished Paradise Forum complex, including the iconic Central Library.

The event was publicised through social media and by specifically contacting those with a particular interest in the building. Part of the evening involved reflection on memories of the library, as well as asking attendees’ opinions on two objects from the library that the museum was looking to acquire.

Birmingham Central Library was completed in 1976, designed by John Madin in the brutalist style. This choice of architecture, particularly the generous use of concrete, gave the library something of a polarising presence. Many hated it, considering it drab, outdated and an eyesore. Others hailed the building as one of the greatest remaining examples of brutalist architecture in the UK – a vital monument to the optimism of Britain’s post-war period.

Chamberlain Square Birmingham 14-08-83. Photo by Andrew Miller
Chamberlain Square Birmingham 14-08-83 by Andrew Miller (photo from Flickr).

This divisiveness poses a problem. Though those who dislike or are non-plussed by the library are most likely in the majority (there were cheers from onlookers when the building was torn down), those who view the building more positively are very passionate and vocal. This provided Collecting Birmingham with a problem – remaining neutral despite the disparity in those enthusiastic enough to turn up to an event dedicated to the old library.

Ice-beaker: love or hate the Central Library.

Despite this, the event was well attended, and though most of the dozen or so attendees viewed the library with some degree of fondness or nostalgia, they did so from a wide range of perspectives and with ample memories of less positive experiences as well – most noticeably the lack of natural light in the library’s interior and the bizarre, stale smell the study rooms developed later in the building’s life.

The diversity of perspectives included two architects researching brutalist architecture and interested in the philosophies surrounding the choice of this style for library. We were also able to meet two people who had worked in the original central library, a Victorian building which was torn down to make way for its 70’s namesake. They had very positive memories of the transition to the old library, a move which provided the public with easier access to a great many more books than previously available. Other library workers recalled painful memories of the transition to the new Library of Birmingham, which involved disposing of a portion of the Central Library’s stock in order to move to a building with a smaller capacity. 

Central Library’s Foundation Stone

Most attendees were very keen on the museum acquiring the Central Library’s foundation stone, which ironically and appropriately is actually made of concrete. Opinions were more divided on acquiring a side-door which featured part of a mural by local artist Lucy McLauchlan. Most people remembered the door (and the fact that the area around it often smelled of urine), but felt the amount of mural featured on the door was fairly small. Others did not connect the mural to the library itself.

The event was a success, and included a short preview of local filmmaker Andy Howlett’s upcoming documentary about the Central Library. The stories shared were incredibly broad in their scope as well as being very emotive. Many of these will prove to make excellent oral histories as part of Collecting Birmingham’s continuing effort to collect objects and stories related to the Central Library.