Monday, 23 December 2013

Christmas in Berlin...

A festive Brandenburger Tor 

They don't do things by halves in Berlin and during the festive season they pull out all the stops, with massive Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets) and elaborate displays all over the city. The German capital is also a showcase for architecture of global significance all year round, with typically East and West German design in abundance (the difference still being very evident in places) along with the postmodernist creations which predominated as the city started to reinvent itself when the Cold War subsided at the end of the last century. Heck.. some of Berlin's most iconic structures have even been intricately and deliciously rendered in chocolate!:

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church, epitomising old and modern
 architecture in Berlin ( confectionery form, obviously!)

I wrote about the libraries of Berlin with some affection in my MSc dissertation on library design but always felt something of a fraud having not visited the city myself. I decided it was time to put this right and set out on the trail to find some of Berlin's most architecturally notable bibliotheks.

Philologische Bibliothek, Freien Universität Berlin 

The 'Berlin Brain'
I took a wander through possibly the spookiest university campus I've ever encountered, located in deepest, darkest Dahlem in south west Berlin to find The Philological Library. Similar to Norman Foster’s early 1990’s designs at Cambridge University’s Law Library and Cranfield University Library, his 'Berlin Brain' is an ambitious, flagship building. It cost €18 million to build and is designed to resemble a human brain. As Diecks K. and Werner, M [2004] explain, this concept even extends to individual services located within the building. They note the circulation desk, for example, to be “roughly where the optic nerve would be” and go on to describe how the building is covered by a “cerebral membrane” of protective fiberglass paneling. The full article, which explains how each of the different parts of the building relate to functions of the brain, can be found here.

It was great to finally visit this famous library and although it has its faults (it is not easily accessible, for instance) it still, to me, absolutely embodies what a seat of learning should look and feel like. It also includes exhibitions and displays relating to language and literature and an inspiring range of spaces for individual or group study. 

One of the breakout/small group study areas located
at the base (cerebellum?!) of the Philological Library
Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm-Zentrum - Humboldt-Universität 

Named after the Brothers Grimm, the Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Centre is another awe-inspiring building. Having eventually gotten my head around the intricacies of the key-card operated security locker system and successfully deposited my rucksack (..most research libraries in the city have a similar system, I soon discovered) I ventured into the main reading room. It was 
an experience akin to being a toddler physically delving inside a gigantic bookcase! With tall wooden panels towering around you wherever you go, you feel awed into reverent silence by the sheer elegance of its architecture and it is striking just how soundless the building is.
The tiered main reading room
at Humboldt University 
The library has a massive 9 floors and around 2 million open access volumes. An innovative touch is the inclusion of two 'Automat' machines (cutely also named Jacob and Wilhelm!) introduced earlier this year in order to help circulate this huge collection. These allow users to deposit any items which they wish to keep on hold (described as 'Parking' by the on-screen instructions) and also to pick up reserved items. I was impressed with this, having not seen the like in any libraries I've visited previously. Speaking to library staff about the system, however left me with a less positive impression. They mentioned there have been a fair amount of teething problems with this system, whilst stocking-up and performing basic maintenance on the machines has also proven troublesome. Overall, I've chalked this one off in the "further research required" column.. 
One of the two 'Automat' machines at
Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm-Zentrum
Universitätsbibliothek Cottbus Brandenburgische Technische Universität (BTU)

Umm. So I didn't really really get to look around the library at BTU Cottbus. The train to Cottbus (about 80 miles outside the Capital) was delayed and frankly hellish; packed with drunken football fans being utter prïckß all over the place. As more piled in, the train got further and further delayed along the way until I found myself facing the mile-and-a-half trek to the library from the station with only minutes left until the building closed. So, after wrestling my way through said football fans, I started running and made it just as staff were leaving the building.. Then I remonstrated with the security officer for a while to let me have a quick look around in my best Deutsche sprechende.. "Nur fünf minuten!" etc.. but nothing doing. 

As another onlooking member of (non-library) BTU staff put it, "why do you want to have a look? It's only a library!".  "Only a library?...ONLY A LIBRARY?!" I exclaimed. Then laughed maniacally before launching into a 30 minute diatribe about how the academic library constitutes the beating heart of any University campus... Well O.K.  I didn't really do that.  In actual fact I sloped off with my tail between my legs, muttering something bitter-sounding -  "Danke schen (..für nicht)" - I think it might've been. Or something equally un-vitriolic. Grr. Happily there are others out there who are willing to fight the good fight to promote the importance of libraries globally, for instance libraryphile John Campbell, who included Cottbus in his 'The Library: A World History' book, published earlier this year. 

Cottbus Universität Bibliothek - The one that got away!

This is apparently what it looks like on the inside!
Photo: Will Pryce (in Campbell, 2013)

Cottbus offers a virtual tour (albeit in German..) for those who are interested. They also have a great 'Wegweiser' (signpost) feature on their catalogue which allows you to see the physical location of items which you search for on a map of the library.

Aside from these academic libraries, Berlin's history makes for some fascinating and poignant library stories; the 'Empty Library' (which serves as a monument to lament for Nazi book burning ceremonies) for example, libraries which have been destroyed and rebuilt (including the University libraries) or in the case of the country's national library, a library which has been divided into two. The more modern State Library building is situated near the famous Potsdamer Platz and resembles the brutalist architecture of major research libraries like the British Library or the old Birmingham Central Library in the UK. The more decorative Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin sits just to the east of the former boundary wall and is more classical in its architectural style (neo baroque style, to be precise). The two libraries together boast one of the largest collections in the world, with over 23 million items.

The vast atrium of the Staatsbibliothek's site in
Potsdamer Straße - one of two main locations
Within the next decade, the are plans for a new landmark library in Berlin. The idea is for the main central public libraries in Berlin, Zentral- und Landesbibliothek (not to be confused with the two state research libraries mentioned above) to be merged at a new site site on the grounds of a disused, historical airfield at Templehof in the south-east of the city. Designs for the new library have been submitted, with two concepts having being selected at this stage - the first is described as a "concrete spaceship" and the other, a "glass crystal". There's more information about each of these competition entries here in this Guardian article, with the decision set to be made in early 2014 for construction to start in 2016.

The disused Templehof airfield is to become the
site of a new, consolidated Berlin central library
So, I enjoyed my trail through libraries past, present and future in Christmassy Berlin. I very much hope to go back and explore Cottbus Library properly someday. In the meantime, Merry Christmas to everyone and all the best for a great 2014!

Frohe Weihnachten!!


Campbell J. [2013] The Library: A World History. Thames and Hudson Ltd. Chicago.

Lamont, T. [2013] 'The Library: A World History by James WP Campbell and Will Pryce – review'. The Observer 1 December 2013. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 22.12.13]

CampusTVCottbus [2012] BTU-Bibo-Guide[Online] Available at: [Accessed 22.12.13]

Jackett, S. [2012] 'Berlin As A Post Modern Utopia' [Online] Available at:  [Accessed 22.12.13]

Oltermann, P. [2013] 'Historic Tempelhof airport set to be site of grand Berlin library'. The Guardian 19 December 2013. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 22.12.13]

Ullman, M. [2008] Empty Library, Berlin. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 22.12.13]

Werner, W. & Diecks, M. [2004] '"The Brain" - The Philological Library, Free University of Berlin.' LIBER Quarterly, 14(2). [Online] Available at [Accessed 22.12.2013]

Zentral- und Landesbibliothek [2013] Zentral- und Landesbibliothek. [Online] Available at [Accessed 22.12.2013]

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Library of Birmingham...

DISCLAIMER: Contains mild gushing, including strongly positive adjectives and one 
instance of the word "phantasmagorical". Not suitable for the cynically-minded.
The Library of Birmingham
First things first: the new Library of Birmingham is absolutely fantastic! 

I spent last weekend there in preparation for taking part in the inaugural event which happened on Tuesday. This culminated in Malala Yousafzai's inspirational speech as she declared the building open (here's a link, in case you missed it!)

I played the trombone at this event in a Super Critical Mass project bringing over 100 brass players together around the building's main rotunda to create a cacophony of sound:

 Janet McKay from Super Critical Mass explaining
the piece to us during rehearsals

Brass players were stationed all around
the colourful main book rotunda
My pBone! 

The end result was highly abstract-sounding and experimental piece of music, it has to be said but the kind people of Birmingham seemed to enjoy it and gave us a lot of good feedback! Participants from local youth orchestras took part and their energy and enthusiasm ensured it was a fun experience to be a part of. It was also quite exciting to watch the preparations for the opening taking place all around us:

A window cleaner hard at work before the big day
During this summer's Cycling for Libraries, our tour was lucky enough to visit TU Delft where the Library of Birmingham's architect, Francine Houben (who had studied at the University there) explained the building's unique design to us. She talked about how the library works a series of experiences and it's true that as you move through the building, you do get the sense of these separate but inter-linked spaces each having a character of their own. These sections are also all interspersed with features designed to entice and fascinate the visitor, including a BFI Mediatheque, a gallery and the two roof gardens (the Discovery Terrace and the 'Secret Garden'). The building is centered around the book rotunda with its massive light well beaming natural sunlight down onto parts of the floors below. At the bottom is the Children's Library, with this lower ground floor space opening out into a circular amphitheater which sits beneath the pavement of Birmingham's main Centenary Square. The design also incorporates the Shakepeare Memorial Room. This room was originally built as part of Birmingham's second Central Library (which opened in 1882). When this building was demolished to make way for the brutalist concrete third incarnation of the library in 1974, the Shakespeare room was confined to storage in poor conditions. The new design gives this room pride of place at its very summit:

Mecanoo's design for the Library of Birmingham, showing how sections are distinct from each other & the Shakespeare Room at the top
The building also boasts impressive sustainability credentials, having achieved a BREEAM Excellent Award. The new library operates at 50% of the energy costs of the previous Birmingham Central Library.

The building offers some unexpected and interesting sight-lines
Books and access to information remain at the heart of what the library does, with over 240 PCs, enhanced Wi-Fi, multi-touch screens displaying documents from the library's vast archive and a new look website. However, the library also now aims to give users ample opportunity to create and to collaborate. A major new part of the building's vast array of services is the Business Centre which intends to help kick-start 500 new enterprises every year. The Central Library's role as a cultural and entertainment centre is also highlighted in this mixed-use building. The library is attached to the pre-existing Repertory Theatre ('The REP') which celebrates its centenary this year and the two buildings share a performance space. There are two cafés too - one at the main entrance and the second on the 3rd floor (which is more of a bar, really - let's be honest!)..

Beer and wine are available from the 3rd floor 'Library Café'
The Library of Birmingham's creative directors have also incorporated installations dotted around the building which give the place the sense of being alive and ready to be interacted with. One of my favourite examples was the 'Library of Secrets' (below, left). This was created by Serena Korda who invites visitors to anonymously write down their innermost confessions on scraps of paper and then leave these in the books. Elsewhere there is the 'Library of Lost Books' collection, curated by Susan Cruse, where discarded books have been turned into works of art:
Part of the 'Library of Lost Books' collection
'The Library of Secrets

At the front entrance, 'The Commentators' kept visitors and staff amused with their quirky observations on what was going on in the building. Their commentary was transmitted live as a webcastThe sunken amphitheater was also used to good effect, providing a space for poetry and more brass music. Other participatory initiatives include a "1,000 faces of Birmingham" project, broadcasting a cross-section of random Brummies on plasma screens and murals around the building!:

A participant in the 1,000 faces project, who happened to be
there on the day, getting his photo taken with his picture!

Former Poet Laureates of Birmingham gave recitals (left) & brass players performed in the amphitheater (right) during the opening event
Over and above all of this, however the building has a phantasmagorical quality; there's something dream-like about the way it stands out so completely from all other buildings in Centenary Square, as if it landed there from somewhere else entirely. The bold design has drawn criticism from some quarters, inevitably, as bold architecture always will. As I watched crowds of over 1,000 people gathered at the entrance prior to the opening, it started to resemble something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind as the amassed throng took tentative steps towards the front doors. Some queued for up to an hour to see just what this curious behemoth had in store for them.

Crowds clammering outside the stanchions at the front
 of the Library of Birmingham just before opening

The travelator which transports visitors across the top levels of the book rotunda 
gives a Space Age feel to this otherwise more traditional room

Whilst I could rave on and on about how great the new building is, I can also appreciate that there are some legitimate causes for concern, of course. Those who are not so keen on the project point to the cost of the building and the business interests involved. Estimates of the true long term costs have even been quoted as high as £590m. The Library of Birmingham's director, Brian Gambles ominously talks of the continued "need to find ways to generate commercial income". In The Economist, Mr Gambles cites retail, hiring out the library's facilities and catering as commercial opportunities being exploited at present but it is unclear how this continued need for income will manifest itself in future.

 The ominous threat of privatisation. Picture taken from the 
website of campaign group 'Birmingham against the Cuts' 

Some have also questioned whether it is suitable that this library has opened at a time when so many libraries are being closed across the UK. Here's an example of this argument from the Stop the Privatisation of Public Libraries blog, pointing to a "28% budget cut, 10% cut in opening hours [and] 37% cut in staffing" for Birmingham libraries as a whole. In fairness, it should be noted that this building was commissioned in 2007 which was before the public spending cuts took hold. Also, in what is an utter hodgepodge of local strategies for dealing with library funding cuts across the UK, Birmingham is one council which should be given some credit, I feel, for being a local authority which is committed to keeping its libraries open. This is in direct contrast with Brent Council (as I have outlined in some detail previously on this blog) or Newcastle, as another example, where the opening of a new and similarly fantastic central library building in 2009 now threatens to bring about the closure of as many as 10 local public libraries in the area. 

It remains to be seen what the future holds for this magnificent public building but in the meantime I would urge the critics to go and visit, to see the incredible range of uses visitors are making of their new 'People's Palace' and to appreciate it for the architectural feat of discovery and adventure that it is. The largest public library space in Europe has also already attracted the sort of overwhelmingly positive global media coverage which I feel can encourage renewed interest in libraries. I can completely understand where critics are coming from but to my mind the massive investment (the official figure is somewhere near £189 million) is worth every penny. As Malala emphasised in her impassioned speech, the Library of Birmingham will continue to enlighten future generations; I hope too that it will continue to offer life-affirming and even life-transforming experiences freely to its millions of annual visitors for many years to come.

A computer-generated fly-through of the new Library of Birmingham, looking remarkably 
similar to the real thing (except for the stone-statue people, obviously!)

The Library of Birmingham and the Super Critical Mass brass project featured on 'The Culture Show' on Tuesday September 10. 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

#cyc4lib Part 2...

Cycling for Libraries Part 2: Reflections

Participants welcomed in Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam's
lecture hall at the very start of the Cycling for Libraries tour

I've been home for just over a month now and feel I've had a good chance to reflect on my first Cycling for Libraries tour. Certainly there were some memorable experiences to be had along the way; meeting the World's only Airport librarian, for instance or sampling some of the more unusual Beligan brews (cherry beer, anyone?!) in the many, many library bars! I also got the sense of being part of an something which (although already in its 3rd year) is set to grow even bigger and more ambitious with time. Many participants (a fair few of whom were not library workers themselves) talked about how they felt the trip spurred them to want to step in and help support libraries internationally or to contribute more to the profession. Although pretty exhausted by the end of it all, it was inspiring to see that many others are also prepared to get out there and really do something fantastic in the name of library advocacy too!

One of numerous library bars we visited along the route
The tour also made me think about some key issues within librarianship and about how these are addressed differently in different countries. These are the main points I took away from the experience:

1) Public library  free library

Membership of OpenBare Bibiotheek in Amsterdam
costs €17.50/year & upwards for over 19s
This is something which I'd admit to not having given enough thought to previously. Perhaps because I work in the academic sector, I tend to think of public libraries as places offering free access to information to all. This is not always the case, with subscription fees (albeit affordable charges, in the region of €10 to €20/year for basic membership) being levied on adults for borrowing rights. This was a major point of contention in discussions with Dutch MPs at the Hague, with many library advocates in the Cycling for Libraries group stressing how subscription charges would be unthinkable in countries like the UK or US. Over and above these subscription charges, however, are charges for use of internet access or multimedia resources - and almost all countries have public libraries which charge for these. Are these charges ideologically different from a borrowing charge?..or from charging fines, for that matter (which some would argue amounts to the same thing)?

This certainly gave me a lot to think about. That's even before you get into the great ebook debate and the fact Holland is also the first country to take publishers to court over not being able to lend ebooks from their public libraries. And good on them too!

2. Branding of libraries

Loosely translated, chickens can ask questions about their eggs the library!
Branding seems to be such a pervasive issue in libraries at the moment. Efforts by the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (CILIP) to rebrand themselves here in UK have made national news, having snowballed into a fierce debate which just rumbles on and on. Quite enough about that already, though.. As you'll be able to see from the list of libraries in my previous post, in many cases in Holland & Belgium, central libraries are now OBA libraries, characterised by their 'living room in the city' appearance with their bright, clean, open spaces. To some extent, walking into these libraries felt like entering an Apple Store or an IKEA but canny designers have added features to give these spaces character of their own. In the brand new Affligem Library, for instance, spaces within the library have been assigned the names of rooms in a house. The story-telling area is enchantingly designated as the 'Attic' for example. For me, at least, these are the kind of ideas which prevent the new breed of libraries from becoming faceless, homogenous buildings and transforming them into something truly out of the ordinary and exciting.

Openbare Dendermonde has an Apple Store-like design
but with enough creative touches to make it unique

3) Open Data presents opportunities for libraries

There are some great things being done with Open Data and we were lucky enough to hear about some of these along the route. In DOK Delft, DOK Lab technicians have made use of library members' address data to send heritage images and information about their own streets direct to their email. Better yet, inside the library there are multi-touch surface installations give users the chance to delve deeper into archives which are relevant specifically to them.

A multi-user interactive table in DOK Deflt allows library members to swipe their
cards to access the history of their personal address through use of Open Data
In a refurbished skate park at DOK Ghent, Pat Hochstenback (Digital Architect at Ghent University Library) told us how open data can be used in even more imaginative ways. He used real-time information about which self-service machines were being used on which level of the library in his code, converting book issues (or circulations) into musical notes, thereby answering the question, "What does a library sound like?":

Whilst the cynic in me noted that some of the things we saw were of questionable use-value (..excepting Pat's example above, obviously!) it is clear that Open Data presents many opportunities for libraries and has the potential to revolutionise users' experiences. Another example we were given in Ghent, for instance, was an award-winning app which lets student's know which is their nearest open pharmacy - illustrating how Open Data mining could even be a potential lifesaver.

4) Libraries should be where people are

There is a real effort in Holland to locate libraries in the busiest spaces. Haarlem Station Library was an example of this which we visited. This was set up to allow people who are waiting for trains during peak hours to have an opportunity to discover books, flick through a magazine or to browse the internet. Any local users with a library card can use the service. It is closely linked to the Schiphol Airport library and similarly has close links with Dutch tourism.

The intention is to open libraries in central stations across Holland, allowing users to borrow a book at one station for their journey and then drop this off at another. This reminded me of the beginnings of WHSmith in the UK, which started as a (subscription-based) book-lending service. Its outlets were located at stations to allow travellers to enjoy the newly available innovation of the paperback book during their train ride.

5) Library folk are universally awesome!

Goes without saying really.. but if ever there was a tour which defied librarian stereotypes and preconceptions then this would be it. As you can see from the participants' profiles, we're an eclectic (/eccentric!) bunch. Everyone seemed to have very different interests, backgrounds and reasons for wanting to take part.

Showing solidarity with libraries which find themselves under threat was an important part of the tour too; no less so than on the very first day, with a visit to the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam. Here we lent our support to staff of Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen's (KIT) library whose resource was set to be closed down. Hearing the shocking news that the majority of the 900,000 items comprising this collection were "to be shredded" brought home some of the stark realities which libraries face right now. Whilst we and others tried our best to spread the word about this library (a petition against its closure amassed some 40,000 sigantures) KIT Bibliothek did sadly close, just today in fact - 1st August 2013. On a slightly more positive note, the Institute's website at least states "KIT will make every effort to keep our unique library collection in the future publicly accessible, albeit in a different location". This is of little consolation, however, particularly to those who worked at KIT.

Cycling for Libraries huddled inside the KIT Library
There was also a real spirit of camaraderie throughout the tour as well and everyone we met along the way also went out of their way to make us feel really welcome. This was really appreciated as Cycling for Libraries could definitely be something of an endurance test at times. I don't just mean in terms of the cycling itself here - there was just so much involved.. One minute you find yourself being pelted by hailstones as you fight your way through ferocious crosswinds along dunes on the Dutch coast, the next you're trying to take in a presentation on library architecture or libraries in developing countries..or discussing the future of libraries with MEPs. Suddenly you find it's over a month later and you are trying to make sense of it all!

The "lab guys" at DOK Delft welcomed us in their white coats and
gave an entertaining talk on their work and the future of libraries
Those talented folk Ghent University (UGent) even made this lovely tribute to our ride:

Cycling is a lot like working in a library...

The highlights weren't necessarily the landmarks we saw along the way but some of the  things that happened on route: Returning from lunch at the Hague to discover that Bibliotheek van Haag staff had gone to the trouble of putting saddle covers on all of our bikes to protect them from the rain, for instance.. or the clouds finally parting just as we crossed the Belgian border after some truly horrendous weather.. or random conversations about, say, the actual science behind why we don't have hoverboards (yet!) or how you can take your bike on a van through the Chunnel (I had no idea this service existed!). These are just some of things off the top of my head which have stuck with me for various reasons!

Saddle covers generously provided
by the Library of the Hague
OK, so it was also not all plain sailing along the way, with a fair few scrapes and close shaves (particularly thinking of a very determined motorcyclist on a narrow street in Brussels here who almost ploughed the lot of us down .. grrrr!!). There was a fair amount of taking 'scenic' detours (although we definitely "weren't lost" apparently) and we made do with some pretty 'characterful' accommodation at times too..

This wasn't in the brochure..

..but we made it in one piece and I suspect most of us are probably daft enough to want to do it all again next year. Hope to see you all in Barcelona in August 2014!
Success! We made it to the Grote-Maarkt in Brussels on Day 9

Proudly sporting my hi-vis Cycling for Libraries jacket in the North Sea!