Coffee shops, gigs, free cinema tickets, flashy architecture . . . is this the future of our libraries? Stuart Jeffries on government plans to shake things up – and the people standing in their way. 

It will be much more than just a library. Perhaps we should call it a palazzo of human thought,» says Mike Whitby, Birmingham city council’s leader, as he reclines in his vast office. He’s talking about the new £193m Library of Birmingham, currently under construction at Centenary Square between those other two Brummie palazzi, the Repertory Theatre and the former civic centre called Baskerville House.

Cardiff, Newcastle and Swindon already have new super-libraries, while Liverpool and Manchester’s central libraries are undergoing multimillion-pound renovations. Councillor Whitby thinks Birmingham’s will be better than any of them. Thanks to Dutch architects Mecanoo, the library will be a highly transparent glass building wrapped in delicate metal filigree, housing within its 33,500 sq m a few million books (fingers crossed). It is a key component in the city’s bid to be the UK’s capital of culture in 2013 and should help fulfil Whitby’s aim of putting Birmingham in the top 25 world cities by 2020, as ranked by the Mercer Quality of Living survey (it currently comes joint 56th, with Glasgow).