Published in The Suburban on August 26, 2013

When Montreal’s ‘Grande Bibliothèque’ officially opened to the public on April 30, 2005, few could have foreseen its rapid success. Holding more than four million items spread over 33,000 square metres of space, the eye-catching, massive edifice, with thousands of daily visits, is now said to be the most popular French – language public library in the entire world. In 2011, it was also the most frequented community library in all of North America. In one year alone, the institution received some three million visitors.

Costing $100 million dollars to the Quebec treasury, ‘La Grande Bibliothèque’ is attracting more than twice as many people than was initially anticipated, and can only be considered an exceptional realization.

Designed by the internationally – acclaimed Patkau Architects of Vancouver (British Columbia), the four – storey structure is located in the city centre next to the ‘Université du Québec à Montréal’ with direct access to and from the city’s modern underground Métro system.

The sprawling structure consists of two large ‘chambres de bois’, which, in Quebec, is a not so subtle allusion to the prize-winning novel of the same name by Canadian writer, Anne Hébert. One of these two ‘rooms’ represents about two-thirds of the entire surface area of the building and holds the contents of both the reference and lending libraries. The other ‘chamber’ houses the extensive ‘Collection nationale’, a treasure trove of precious patrimonial works.

Each division is composed of walls of abundant horizontal slats of splendid Quebec birch that add necessary psychological warmth to what is ultimately an extremely modern building.

During the period of clement weather, a ground-level part of the exterior of the edifice is rented out to second-hand booksellers. Known as the ‘Allée des bouquinistes’, the idea is just one of many that has made ‘La Grande Bibliothèque’ a popular and exciting destination for many Montrealers.

(below, the main entrance to Montreal’s ‘Grande Bibliothèque’)


(below, the ‘Grande Bibliothèque’ at night)


Meanwhile, on the European side of the Atlantic, there is a similar project that is leaving many equally amazed. In Birmingham, England, work is rapidly progressing on perhaps the most substantial public library venture ever undertaken in the United Kingdom. Already home to the continent’s most frequented non – national library, Great Britain’s second largest city will soon be blessed with one of the most impressive and advanced facilities found anywhere in the world.

The strikingly beautiful new Library of Birmingham is located on the west side of the city centre at Centenary Square squeezed in between the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Baskerville House, an art deco office building constructed in 1938. Designed in a Post Modern, High Tech architectural style, the state of the art establishment is officially scheduled to be opened on September 3, 2013. The final cost of the structure is expected to be £188.8, or about $300 million dollars.

Ten storeys in all (one below ground and nine above), the dazzling edifice will contain some 35,000 square metres of space, housing both an adult and children’s library along with many other diverse features.

A Shakespeare Memorial Library in the form of a rooftop manuscript rotunda will be situated on the very top floor, a special tribute to the Midlands’ favourite son. There, some 46,000 books, editions in 93 different languages, and relatively rare copies of the first four folios of the Bard’s work will all be found. They are now held in the existing library building and constitute one of the largest collections of Shakespeare’s works located anywhere in the world.

In addition, true to its roots steeped in the industrial revolution, the new Library of Birmingham will also house the celebrated Boulton and Watt Collection.

(below, an artist’s sketch of the new ‘Library of Birmingham’, opened on September 3, 2013)


The City of Birmingham has an interesting history of civic libraries. The first, the Birmingham Lending Library and Art Gallery opened with considerable fanfare on September 6, 1865 – a full half century before the inauguration of Montreal’s initial public library. Just over a year later, the Birmingham Reference Library was added to the impressive structure.

Regrettably, in January of 1879, while yet another expansion of the elegant edifice was taking place, a fire broke out, accidentally set by a gas pipe fitter named Wilkins.

(below, the Birmingham Library after the January 1879 fire)


Lord Mayor Jesse Collings, along with many other ordinary citizens, hurriedly converged on the site to save as much as they could of the Shakespeare Collection but a good deal was nevertheless lost. The intricate ornate structure was entirely gutted in the conflagration.

However, what remains of the collected works is still substantial enough to occupy a large amount of the third floor of the present day public library (Birmingham’s third) on Chamberlain Square in the city centre. They will all be moved to the ninth floor of the new building when it is formally inaugurated.

The current edifice will be demolished slowly after the opening of the new one. It was constructed in the Brutalist style in the early 1970’s and is, in area, the largest municipal library anywhere in Europe. Known simply as ‘Central Library’, the heavy concrete structure was controversially criticized by Prince Charles as “looking more like a place for burning books, than keeping them.” Despite the prince’s opinion, however, the World Monuments Fund included the edifice on its list of buildings deserving protection.

Central Library shares with Montreal’s ‘Grande Bibliothèque’ the ignominy of having part of its façade fall to the ground below. In 1999, a sizeable piece of concrete tumbled from the Birmingham building, nearly striking a passerby while shortly after its official opening, several U – shaped plates of glass enveloping the façade of the ‘Grande Bibliothèque’ exploded in the summer heat, crashing to the foot of the structure. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

‘La Grande Bibliothèque’ is, in Montreal’s history, merely its second public library. Long under the restrictive influence of the once powerful Roman Catholic Church, reading was for the longest time not greatly encouraged in the Province of Quebec. In fact, it was only in 1917 that French Marshall Joseph Joffre presided over the official opening of the city’s first civic library. This relatively modest facility served the municipality for nearly ninety years, before the new ‘Grande Bibliothèque’ finally replaced it in 2005.

The futuristic Library of Birmingham should prove less contentious both in design and execution than the city’s old Central Library. The plan is the work of the Dutch company Mecanoo Architecten, who also drafted the avant-garde Library of the University of Delft in the Netherlands, a culturally pioneering country where even Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport has a library.

Designed as great concrete boxes rising into the sky, the entire Birmingham structure will be encased in bracelet-like rings of architectural aluminum circles. This imaginative frieze will serve as a tribute to the gasometers, tunnels, canals, and viaducts that fuelled Birmingham’s historic industrial growth down through the years.

One auspicious feature in the construction of the new Midland facility is the employment of a number of homeless people; in fact, 28 in all, 18 of whom have full time positions. That aside, on any given day, some 600 workers could be found labouring at the vast city centre site.

At a time when many vintage libraries throughout the world are facing closure or restricted hours, the phenomenon of the erection of so-called ‘super libraries’ continues to accelerate. One of the first in this category was Seattle’s Central Library that opened in May of 2004 – an 11- storey glass and steel beauty that quickly broke records for library attendance.

Designed by the celebrated Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, the Seattle edifice immediately created some $16,000,000 of economic spinoffs for the area in which it is located. Writing in the New Yorker, Pulitzer prize-winning architecture critic, Paul Goldberg, branded the Seattle facility “the most important new library to be built in a generation, and the most exhilarating.”

Seattle in 2004, Montreal a year later, and now Birmingham, all reflect a new and evolving attitude towards public libraries in general. Out are many of the old, stuffy, abiding buildings of the past frequented by a limited number of people for a limited number of functions. In are the multi-purpose, flashy facilities, strongly pivoted on digital media, and designed to attract more people of all ethnicities and all ages. In that regard, both Seattle and Montreal have been notable triumphs.

In a recent BBC interview, Tony Durcan, Director of Culture of the City of Newcastle – on – Tyne, affirmed that many of the new varieties of modern mega – libraries are in fact now serving the community in ways that were unimaginable in the past. From dynamic digital learning centres to                            broad ‘neighbourhood living rooms’, Durcan described the 21st century concept of the library as “a quality public square with a roof on top.” The phenomenon is nothing short of the total reinvention of the public library, as it was known in the past.

In that regard, in 2013, the skyline of the Midland metropolis will be transformed by one of the world’s most compelling and ambitious cultural projects – the Library of Birmingham. With a projected four million visitors a year, it will be the busiest institution of its kind anywhere in Europe.

(below, being given a tour of the new Library of Birmingham in October 2012, while the building was under construction)