- From Secular Temples to Information Warehouses
The infamous Birmingham Central Library was opened in January 1974 to replace its Victorian predecessor, the Birmingham Reference Library, which had been opened in 1882. This update was first declared “an urgent necessity” by the civic council in 1938.1 When it finally happened, the city swapped a revivalist neoclassical building for a concrete vision of the future with exterior walls stacked outwards like a four-sided upturned staircase. Loved by enthusiasts of British brutalism and loathed by many others, the 1974 library was the result of decades of frustrated planning. It was finally built during a period of great financial difficulty for all of the country’s city councils. In his studious new book Libraries of Light: British Public Library Design in the Long 1960s, Alistair Black points beyond his period of inquiry to the irony surrounding Birmingham’s latest refresh: the £188 million Library of Birmingham. Conceived before the 2008 financial crash and now the largest public library in the United Kingdom, it was opened in September 2013, roughly three months after the 1974 building was closed and scheduled for demolition. By February 2015, the newest library’s opening hours were cut from seventy-three per week to forty [End Page 185] (then increased in 2016 to sixty-six), and around half of the 188 staff members initially employed had been made redundant.2
These three incarnations of Birmingham’s central library service exemplify three crucial phases in the history of library design that, in turn, formed, re-formed, then outgrew commonly held modern understandings of what a library should be and do. Black’s book is one of three recent volumes on the topic of library history (and futures) that merit broad and comparative attention because the crises facing their subject are so multifaceted, so pressing, and so commonly misunderstood. Alice Crawford’s edited collection of guest lectures from a 2009–13 series held at the University of St Andrews, The Meaning of the Library, offers a polyglossic long history of “the library”—that symbolic and practical pillar of civility and learning, which is presumed to be necessary and necessarily good—through twelve chapters of scholarly address. More discursively, the mix of essays, interviews, images, and an open letter in Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin’s co-edited collection offers future-oriented foci from a mix of curators, media theorists, librarians, and artists on their titular topic, Fantasies of the Library.
To understand the relevance of their shared subject—the ever-changing status of libraries from a principally Western point of view—to this journal’s focus, I have to beg leniency of Modernism/modernity’s editors. The history of the modern library bridges modernism, so I need to stretch both ends of this journal’s periodic frame, backwards to 1845 and forwards to the early 1970s. Bookending this elongated frame are two important political changes in British library history, which echoed in, and were echoes of, international changes in library culture. At one end was the UK Parliament’s 1845 Museums Act that paved the way for the 1849 Select Committee and then the 1850 Public Libraries Act, by which Parliament empowered council boroughs to open their own public libraries that collectively formed a national network. Architect Michael Webb called such libraries “secular temples for the worship of learning,” which neatly describes the confluence of agendas that propelled their development.3 Historians including Thomas Kelly (1966), Fred Lerner (1998), and Matthew Battles (2003) have all noted that in Britain this network was instituted in the climate of Chartist reforms and in the spirit of Utilitarian political visions.4 Yet its development ever since has been entwined with movements around the world...