Birmingham's Centre for the Child officially opens its doors this week. Elaine Williams visits a library at the heart of community life. There is something almost sacred about the great store of knowledge and creativity held by a library. Whether big or small, national or local, libraries form part of the foundation of civil society. They embody the dreams and aspirations of reader and collector, cataloguer and librarian; they are a refuge from the hubbub of the street; a priceless historical and personal record; a necessary resource for the studious, the curious and the book-lover.
So when a library is burnt, society suffers, and when a children's library is fire-bombed the sense of bereavement is particularly acute. When Birmingham children's library was thus destroyed in 1991, children stood outside its charred remains and wept. Today they wander freely around the Birmingham Centre for the Child which has arisen from the ashes, a glorious redefinition of what a modern library can be.
From the city's shopping centre one approaches the main city library complex through a series of newly-fashioned, elegant piazzas linked by wide flights of steps; evidence of the city council's costly commitment to civic rejuvenation. The Centre for the Child is prominently housed off the main entrance on the ground floor of that complex. During its first week in January, 6,500 visitors went through its doors.
Libraries have been redefining their role for many years and most have had to make amendments along the way, a process often hampered by draconian budgetary restrictions. But for Birmingham's children's library, insurance pay-outs combined with some cash from education and social services and the city council's capital programme, have enabled dreams to be realised.
This is a library which fulfils its traditional role admirably - a generous book stock is stored in child-high movable stacks between wide carpeted aisles - ideal for dreaming and browsing in. On entering, older children and adults are therefore afforded a view across the whole space, which is light and bright and attractive with posters, while curtains in bold, colourful prints break up the monotony of large, plate-glass windows. Though open-plan, the library is imaginatively designed to provide discrete areas.
Babies, toddlers, teenagers, parents, the disabled, the sight and hearing impaired, early readers, late readers, the bookish, the bored, the browser and computer literate have all been taken into account. Tables are electronically coordinated for wheelchair users and others with disabilities. A plug-in induction loop with accompanying body microphone allows story-telling to be transmitted directly into hearing aids. A parents and baby room offers comfortable, airy changing and feeding facilities down to the bottle warmer. In the far left hand corner of the library toddlers are free to roll around large, animal-shaped floor cushions, play with the best of developmental toys, ride rocking horses or reach for books, placed in boxes on the floor.
Although the library had only been open for a few weeks, Stephen Dodd had made several visits with his one-year-old son Jacob who was busy emptying a box of its books with enormous energy and then putting them back again.
"I shall be coming here with Jacob every week," said Mr Dodd, "Having something like this for toddlers is an excellent way of getting them used to using books. The last time we came here somebody was reading stories and Jacob happily sat down with the other children and listened. This is the way he will learn."
The library is designed to enable different activities to take place simultaneously. Its sound system can relay poetry, story and music recordings to specific parts without hindering activities elsewhere. Adjacent to an area set out with tables for homework, teenagers have been given a space with comfortable chairs, decorated with posters, and resourced with careers and health information, reference material and appropriate fiction, including "adult tasters" like the work of P D James and Terry Pratchett.
A Beginning to Read and Reading Recovery area is stocked with early reader series as well as information for parents wishing to support their children's early reading. Librarians are planning to hold sessions with parents on how to choose appropriate books to help their children with reading; and with reading volunteers for schools, in cooperation with the city's education department.
Indeed, the library is intended to embody a corporate approach by the city to children's services. Birmingham is developing a city-wide "child friendly" policy and the centre is seen at the heart of that commitment. In addition, 1995 has been declared the Year of Reading in Birmingham, and the library is to act as a focus for that.
During the centre's official launch this week, the first monthly children's rights surgery is being held. This is an extension of the service provided by the Child Care Information Bureau, housed in the far right-hand corner of the library but run by social services. This bureau, which runs a 24-hour help line, provides information on children's issues from legislation to literacy and child care to children's rights. It can help people who want to register as child minders, it can help parents seeking appropriate nurseries, playgrounds and support groups, it can deal with concerns about child protection. Anne Everall, the centre's manager, said the library provided the perfect "non-stigmatising" environment for the bureau.
As the children's librarian who has had to live directly with the consequences of the fire, moving the library in and out of temporary accommodation for the last four years - for some months it was little more than a stall in a shopping arcade - Anne Everall has also played a key role in planning the new centre and directing consultation. After the trauma and sheer hard work shefeels a particularly strong sense of ownership. "Nothing was salvageable from that fire. I had been working on a guide to anti-sexist children's resources, for example, but everything was destroyed. The grieving process took a long time, but we were determined that something bigger and better, a phoenix, would rise from the ashes".
The Birmingham Centre for the Child has been marked as a flagship for the Library Association which this year has launched Library Power, a campaign to focus attention on children's entitlement to proper libraries.
John Dolan, the head of Birmingham's central library stated: "This place is designed to make people feel that books are exciting. Books are about enjoyment and re-creation in the real meaning of that word. The library can play a pro-active role as well. The quality of life of a child or adult will depend on their ability to read and absorb information". In order to promote children's reading and literacy in general, adults as well as children had to be attracted to the library. A lot of thought had gone into that, he said.
Marie Kennedy and Christine Sharpe formed part of a group of parents from the city's outer suburbs who were consulted during the centre's construction. Mrs Kennedy said: "They wanted to know what kind of facilities would attract us into the city centre to visit the library" Mrs Sharpe, a mother-of-two who also has hearing difficulties, was concerned above all that deaf children should be catered for and offered opportunities that she herself was denied as a youngster. Mrs Kennedy, who has four children, felt that the library should be exciting and friendly.
She said: "I wanted a place that would be full of activities, where there would be poetry readings, face painting, visits from authors, a place where kids would want to go and where they would be welcome.
"I'm very impressed, especially with the space designed for teenagers. I feel we have been listened to. When my older children were little I never used the children's library. At my local library I would be embarrassed if the children were noisy so I would rush in, grab a few books and rush out, hitting the buggy on the door on the way".