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Malala Yousafzai helps Birmingham bet on books

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the the Taliban for advocating girls' education, reacts after speaking at the opening of Birmingham Library in central England September 3, 2013.


In an era when reading just about anything on paper seems almost archaic, Birmingham is making a big bet on the printed word.

On Tuesday, this industrial city of one million people, where the recession still bites and jobs are hard to find, opened a $300-million public library. At 31,000 square metres, it is believed to be the largest library in Europe and city officials hope the facility's unique blend of education, information and entertainment will reinvigorate the battered downtown core and reshape how people view libraries.

"What we are very much hoping for is that this library will redefine libraries for the 21st century and genuinely transform people's lives," said city councillor Ian Ward, deputy leader of Birmingham's council.

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There are voices of concern, from those who say spending so much on a prestige project is a waste when hundreds of smaller regional branches are being closed across the country. But there were few critics at Tuesday's opening ceremonies, which featured bands, politicians and a speech by one of the city's best-known residents: Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot by the Taliban last year while on her way to school, came to Birmingham for medical treatment and is now living there with her family. Ms. Yousafzai spoke passionately about the importance of reading and libraries. "A world without books is like a body without a soul," she told the crowd. "A city without books, and a city without libraries, is like a grave yard."

These are dark days indeed for many libraries as smart phones, tablets and ever faster computers leave people less inclined to read actual books. More than 300 libraries are expected to close in Britain this year and local library budgets have been slashed by as much as 30 per cent. In Canada, public libraries have come under threat in Toronto and dozens of school libraries have been closed in several cities. The issue has raised enough concern that the Royal Society of Canada, an academic research group, has launched a national study on the future of libraries.

In response, many libraries are changing what they do, such as building outdoor reading porches, installing cafés, opening theatres and developing "digital commons" with fancy computers and online services. In Washington, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library has been refurbished with a "digital bar" featuring the latest portable electronic gadgets and rows of computers with expensive software. In Windsor, Ont., the local library has set up mobile branches, like kiosks, that allow people to view what's available and sign out material on smart phones.

The Library of Birmingham is going even further. The 10-storey building, shaped like a birthday cake, features 400,000 books, millions of archive documents and a Shakespeare collection that includes 43,000 titles. It also houses a theatre company, an art gallery and enough space to host a steady stream of musical performances, dance companies, lectures, debates and displays by local universities. The key, according to chief executive Brian Gambles, is for the library to have "event-rich" spaces where something is always happening.

As for technology, Mr. Gambles said the library looked into what it could offer that people don't have. That includes table-top computer screens and multi-screen media walls. "I completely believe that there is a role for the public library in the new economy and the new ecology of learning, where you have digital and physical working together," he said.

But even he acknowledged the library's rows of book shelves might not last. "We recognize that this library in 10 years time is going to have fewer volumes on the shelves than it has now. But we've designed the spaces flexibly so as the books diminish in number we can use more spaces for people-centred learning activities," he said.

Not everyone agrees the Birmingham model is the solution. Laura Swaffield, who heads the Library Campaign, a British charity fighting to save libraries, said these giant projects drain resources away from regional branches which are vital. "Was such a huge prestige project the best use of money?" she said. "No." Officials in Birmingham conceded that budget pressure mean they will be hard-pressed to save the city's 40 local branches and at least part of the ongoing funding for the library will have to come from private donations.

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But for now people like Nyimasata Sonko find the Birmingham library a godsend. Ms. Sonko, 20, hasn't been to a library in years and few of her friends have ever set foot in one. She couldn't wait to get into the new building on Tuesday and plans to come regularly even though it will take her 30 minutes on the bus. "I don't care, I love it," she said. "I'll be back, often."

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