Library of Birmingham - Atlas Obscura

Library of Birmingham

The largest public library in the United Kingdom was designed to reflect the industrial and artistic history of the city where it stands. 


In 2013 this remarkable building in Birmingham, England, replaced a Brutalist concrete structure, the Birmingham Central Library (built in 1974). The exterior layer of the facade is a lattice of black metal rings, said to represent the city’s many former gas holders, almost all of which have now been demolished (Birmingham was the site of the first-ever building to be illuminated by gas).

Underneath the lattice of black rings is a further lattice of silver which has gold, silver, and black decorative panels underneath. This ornamentation is said to represent the finely pierced work that used to be produced in Birmingham’s famous jewelry quarter.  The building was designed by a Dutch firm of architects called Mechanoo.

The building’s interior is as remarkable as its exterior. The escalator system and the elevators are a work of art in their own right and the collections include materials that would grace the library of any capital city. This includes a copy (one of only three remaining) of the first ever book in English (by Caxton in 1471) and a first folio of the complete works of Shakespeare.

The building is also environmentally sound. It uses cold water from the underlying aquifer to cool the air conditioning system, with the heated water being pumped back underground via a different borehole. This significantly reduces the energy footprint of the building. 

At 31,000 square meters, it is the largest regional library in Europe and the largest public library in the U.K. It is said to have cost  just over £188 million to build,

Know Before You Go

In September 2023 Birmingham City Council declared itself unable to meet its financial commitments and thus, essentially, bankrupt. It has been taken into special measures by the U.K. government and the life of the library as a public building is under threat. There have been calls to sell the library, largely from the right-wing press, to reduce the city's debt.

Anyone interested in seeing the interior would be advised to visit while they can, just in case.

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