From frozen gas pipes to Harold Wilson: The history of the Library of Birmingham

| 04 September 2013

Following the opening of the £189 million Library of Birmingham, we take a look at some of the spaces it will follow in the footsteps of...

A photo of an ancient urban library
Birmingham Central Library (circa 1885)© Thomas Lewis
"There is, probably, no word of the human vocabulary which brings a greater crowd of thoughts to the educated man's mind than that blessed word library; for a library is one of the greatest causes, as it is also one of the greatest results of man's civilisation...” - George Dawson at the opening of the first Central Library in 1865

The new Library of Birmingham is the city’s fourth central library in the century and a half since the passing of the Free Libraries Act. It was to be another ten years before a sufficient majority of ratepayers, who had to contribute an old penny in the pound, agreed to establish a Free Libraries Committee.

The committee decided that there should be a central reference library in Birmingham with reading and newsrooms, a museum and art gallery, and four district libraries. Two architects were commissioned – EM Barry for the exterior, and William Martin, the interior.

Birmingham’s first Central Lending Library and Art Gallery opened on September 6 1865 and the Reference Library just over a year later in October 1866.   

It proved to be a huge success and space was soon needed for expansion. Walls were knocked down in the Reference and Lending Libraries to increase capacity and a Museum of Industrial Art opened.

During a particularly cold spell in the winter of 1879, the Library’s gas pipes froze. A workman tried to thaw the pipes out by making a hole in them, fitting a transformer and lighting a flame.

Shavings at the foot of a wooden partition caught fire. Despite the heroic efforts of the Birmingham and Aston fire brigades and many individuals - including the Mayor, Alderman Jesse Collinges, who smashed the glass cabinets of the priceless Shakespeare Collection to help rescue 500 precious volumes - the building could not be saved.

Most of the Lending Library’s books were rescued but very few from the Reference Library.

A photo of the inside of a 19th century library
The Shakespeare Memorial Library (circa 1885)© Francis Firth and Co

The second Birmingham Central Library, 1879-1973

Two days after the fire, the Free Libraries Committee opened a subscription fund for a new library.

The shell of the original library and the pillars which had supported the roof had survived the fire, so the new design was based on these.

The Lending Library and the Newsroom were to be on the ground floor, and the Reference Library and Shakespeare Library on the first floor. The estimated cost for rebuilding was £2,000, but the final cost nearer £5,000.

The new Central Reference and Lending Libraries opened in June 1882. The fire had attracted great publicity, and as a result there were many generous donations to the library – not just financially, but also in terms of additions to the collections. That tradition continues to this day.

The Libraries Committee began to keep statistics relating to users' occupations. In 1910, the estimated population was 570,113.

Many 'Occupations of Borrowers' were listed – Birmingham was the city of 1,000 trades. There were nearly 15,000 ”scholars and students'' and more than 1,000 teachers.

There were 3,904 clerks and bookkeepers, 590 engineers and machinists and 387 jewellers and goldsmiths. More individual professions, where only one was listed included a Jew's Harp maker, an Artificial Eye Maker, and a Well Sinker.

A black and white photo of men in overalls moving books on shelves from a van
Moving into the new Central Library (circa 1972)

The third Birmingham Central Library

Despite the addition of a new basement book store in 1909-1910, the opening of the commercial and Patent Library in 1919 and another layer of storage on top of the island bookcase, it was clear the Library was running out of space.

The Council approved in principle the building of a new library in 1938, but the war intervened. The problem grew more acute every year.

In 1960, the Birmingham Mail reported that the library had been designed to hold 30,000 books, but now held 750,000. Books in the basement were shelved three deep, and many books in the public area could only be reached by the staff climbing very high ladders.

During the 1950s and 1960s many of the old buildings in the city centre were demolished and it was finally decided to build a new library.

The foundation stone of the new library, designed by John Madin, was laid on June 5 1970. Materials were moved across the bridge linking the old and new libraries, one section at a time.

The only part of the old building to be saved was the interior of the Shakespeare Memorial Library, which now sits atop the new Library of Birmingham.

The new library was in use from mid-1973 onwards; the official opening, by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, was on a sunny Saturday morning in January 1974.  

The old library was finally demolished in October 1974 after the interior of the Shakespeare Memorial Library had been reconstructed in the new building.

A photo of the inside of a huge multi-storey library
© Christian Richters

The new Library of Birmingham

As in the past, the Library’s collections expanded and, coupled with the development of digital technology, by 1998 it became clear that the 1974 Library should either be substantially refurbished or rebuilt.

In 2007, Birmingham City Council took the decision to build a new Library with world-class facilities for its world-class collections and services on Centenary Square – one of Birmingham’s most important public spaces, a short distance from the site of Central Library.    

It was seen as an opportunity to deliver a new landmark building for the City reflecting its status and aspirations of its people.   

Construction on the new Library of Birmingham began in January 2010 and was completed in Spring 2013, ready for the library’s books, archives, photography and heritage collections to be moved in.

The old Central Library closed its doors to the public for the last time at the end of June 2013, enabling staff to get ready to open the Library of Birmingham on 3 September 2013.

Adapted from the history of libraries in Birmingham, published by Birmingham City Council.

More pictures:

A black and white photo of librarians in suits standing by a desk surrounded by shelves
Central Library Enquiries counter (circa 1910)
A monochrome photo of a male librarian in a suit and skullcap during the 19th century
John Davies Mullins, Chief Librarian (1865-1898)
A black and white photo of men in suits looking at a model of a library during the 1970s
The model of the new Central Library (circa 1972)
A black and white photo of men in suits in a library during the 19th century
Librarians, Birmingham Central Library (circa 1885)
A black and white photo of the inside of a library built with a brutalist architectural style
New Central Library interior (circa 1971)
A photo of a dome-shaped library
Public Works Department, Reading Room, Birmingham Reference Library (circa 1965)
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