Memories of the smell of the old books, holidays spent doing activities upstairs, sitting cross-legged on the carpet to hear stories on school trips, and falling in love with the likes of Anne of Green Gables, the Cat in the Hat and Famous Five still cling to the impressive brickwork of this old library building.
A symbol of attitudes towards education changing, Selly Oak Library was one of 2,509 libraries around the world built with money donated by Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie’s work was fueled by the conviction that any man can be successful through hard work, and therefore that everyone should have access to books in order to enact such self-improvements. Many criticised Carnegie’s philosophy as insulting to communities capable of forming their own libraries, or worse, an attempt at social control of the working classes. His steel workers argued that the money would have been better spent on improving working conditions at his own company. Regardless, the building left in his wake in Selly Oak was claimed by the local community as a space for education, community and stories.
The library was opened in 1905, on donated by Emma Gibbins, wife of Thomas Gibbins who ran the Birmingham Battery and Metal Company, and daughter of the Cadbury family. You can see her silhouette statue at the entrance to Selly Oak Park!
Downstairs, you would have seen wooden reading slopes for newspapers in amongst the bookshelves. Initially, women were only encouraged to read in the allocated ‘women’s reading room’ upstairs. As times changed, women and girls were allowed to explore the whole library. One reader remembers her mum telling her that she always ‘had her head in a book!’ Others remember long summers at the holiday club upstairs, and school trips sat cross-legged on the floor, eyes wide in excitement at Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree. Over time, the building evolved to host a colourful children’s room in the front and the former women’s room upstairs was home to Birmingham’s Adult Dyslexia Group.
The library closure in 2018 was met with disappointment from the local community. The children’s library service has now moved to the Touchbase Pears down the Bristol Road and the grade two listed historical building has sat empty since its closure. Community Partnership for Selly Oak is still campaigning to reinstate the beautiful but deteriorating building as a community space.