Birmingham Central Library, Brexit and the Psychology of Change

Change feels tough, right? Whether you choose change, or change is thrust upon you, it’s still hard to handle. You get that feeling in the pit of your stomach as if your body’s trying to tell you, “this isn’t good”.

Post-referendum, a lot of people are experiencing this, even some of those who voted to leave.

When Birmingham was deciding whether to get rid of the old Brutalist library, I had mixed feelings. It’s ugly but iconic, and I wasn’t sure I wanted the feel of Chamberlain Square to change. But on the other hand, why would we keep a building that wasn’t even fit for its original purpose?

I moved from London to Birmingham in the 90s to study, and my experiences of Birmingham Central Library’s interior were grim. It was dark, with horrible acoustics, claustrophobic escalators, and no connection to the outside world. It wasn’t a pleasant place to spend time.

In contrast, the new Library of Birmingham is spacious and bright with garden terraces and a stunning triple-height rotunda that, with its endless rows of books, looks like something out of a Harry Potter film.

With this dazzling new library in place, why would anyone want to keep the old one?

So why can’t I bring myself to go and watch any of the demolition? Why do I feel sad that I’ll never walk past that bold inverted ziggurat again? (Yes, I did have to look that word up – it’s a great word, isn’t it?)

I’m the kind of person who would get up early on a Sunday morning to see a tower block being blown up, yet I’ve somehow managed to avoid getting anywhere near this demolition.

Maybe it’s nostalgia for my early twenties when I walked past the library most days, or maybe it’s linked to my affection for the iconic Brutalist architecture at the finale of one of my favourite London walks from the Tower of London, over Tower Bridge and along the Thames to the South Bank Centre. Or maybe it’s that aversion to change that psychologists assure us is part of the human condition.

It’s not just that we fear change, but that we perceive that if something has been the same way for some time, then it must be “good”. The longer something has been there, the better we perceive it to be. So to embrace change we have to give up something we see as “good” and embrace something new and uncertain.

I know that destroying the old library will make way for some positive changes to the city I love, but I’m not quite ready for the change.

What has to happen for us to move from resisting change to embracing it?