Common Knowledge

Sibyl Ruth is a freelance writer based in Birmingham.  She recently wrote ‘Bodies in the Library,’ an audio drama about John Madin’s Central Library.

My local library currently displays signs saying, ‘Knowledge is King’. But last winter there were different placards on display. They hung from metal barriers and read, ‘Danger! Keep Out!’  The hundred year old skylights in the roof were at risk of falling in.

Kings Heath Library is a listed building.  English Heritage describes it as having ‘an accomplished Baroque facade’ and giving ‘a powerful impression of classical learning.’  It also contains ‘a series of internal spaces which are well handled.’

Unfortunately Birmingham, a city whose motto is ‘Forward’, has a mixed record when it comes to historic buildings. Some places remain shut for years, deteriorating further. Happily, £75,000 was found to pay for the installation of permanent internal scaffolding at Kings Heath.  After a mere three months the library reopened.

But those ‘well-handled internal spaces’ now look decidedly unattractive. Effectively the ceiling’s been lowered, making the library appear dark.  Boxed-in pillars of metalwork diminish the available floor space.

Potential users could be put it off.  Regulars are less likely to linger.  However it would cost £300,000 to replace skylights fully with exact replicas.  And the Council does not have the funding ‘at this stage.’

The library continues to be well used by community groups.  But the building doesn’t open on Wednesdays any more.  And the range of books is not what it used to be. (£200,000 has been cut from the city’s £1.3 million books fund.)

Though a citywide Library Services Review was announced back in September, nobody knows when the findings will get shared.  Meanwhile the Council’s Cabinet Member for Leisure suggests there doesn’t need ‘to be a librarian to open and close libraries each day.’

If you depend on the national press, you might think Birmingham was a great place for libraries.  Won’t we get our new £193 million Library of Birmingham soon?  Some of us though, would prefer to keep the existing Central Library.  Back in the 1960s its architect, John Madin, was aware that new technology would alter how we access information.  His design took into account that library services would evolve.    Madin gave Birmingham an iconic Modernist building that was the finest provincial library in Europe.

During an economic boom, perhaps there was some excuse for bulldozing a masterpiece.  Like the belief that the concrete of Madin’s library was starting to crumble.  A prime site at the heart of the city could be sold, a new library put up elsewhere, and (almost) everyone would profit.

But as the recession started to bite, enthusiasm waned.  The words ‘vanity project’ were muttered.  Other suspicions took hold.  Whenever the new Library of Birmingham got discussed, it was in terms of providing leisure activities. Shouldn’t there be a few mentions of reading? And study?

When people are not ‘on message’, publicity can be brought in.  Rather than relying on its in-house marketing team, Birmingham City Council has hired external consultants to sell its pet project. There are promotional events, glossy videos, Community Engagement Officers. All labouring to convince us the new Library is a Good Thing.

The PR posse aren’t quite so helpful if we persist in asking the ‘wrong’ questions. Awkward journalists and campaigners have been forced to use Freedom of Information legislation to get at facts.  (Yes, that launch for the London media cost £135,000.  No, Central Library doesn’t have ‘concrete cancer’. It’s perfectly sound.)

Another method of persuasion is to let Central Library run down. Then we’ll be sure to welcome change.  This could explain why, in the Lending library so many self-service machines are now out of order.  Shelves are half-empty, though the area’s cluttered with stands.  Lots of the books are tatty.  And it’s a red letter day if all of the escalators function.

Central Library also has four Reference floors.  They have what – in the 60s and 70s – was an innovative open plan, which allows for the fact that study is often an interdisciplinary affair.   Some of the most frequent users of the Reference library are historians.  They base themselves in the sixth floor Archives section, but changes to the service anywhere else impact on them.  Buildings historian Andy Foster was dismayed when individual subject desks (Science and Technology, Arts etc.) were removed. The librarians who staffed them gave him significant help when he wrote the Pevsner guide to Birmingham. ‘Now,’ he says. ‘All that expertise has gone.’

There’s been a further body blow to Reference users – not that you’d know that from glancing at the Council’s website. This boasts, ‘We’ve found a way to keep the Central Library OPEN.’  Only when you reach the small print does it mention, ‘The top three floors of the library will close to the public so that we can prepare the stock for the move.’

Some might think two years is a generous time allocation.  Last time Birmingham moved main libraries, the job got done in a few months. Yet though the closures don’t officially start till July, some holdings are already being put into store.

You might assume such a long period of ‘stock preparing’ would guarantee the careful transportation of each item. Sadly there are echoes of a different kind of transport.  One user confides, ‘Books are being sold. We don’t know what and how many: we just know it’s happening.’

People wanting the Archives have been warned of ‘a limited service’.  Again detailed information is scarce.  But researchers fear their work will become impossible.  Andy Foster explains, ‘The latest rumour is that you will have to make an appointment to visit and pre-order everything you want. This is disastrous for me… I’m trying to attribute buildings and often need many building plans for a short period of time each.’

It’s not just the specialists who will suffer.  Central Library is one of the busiest libraries in England.  Sometimes every seat in the Reference floors is taken.  But the tower blocks of nearby Ladywood are more crowded still. Few young people there have a quiet place at home in which to prepare for exams. The Reference library has offered them a lifeline. How will their futures be affected, when four floors of study space are reduced to one?

Knowledge could be King. Libraries should be places where information is for sharing.  Only I keep thinking about those metal barriers. The ‘Keep Out’ signs. Maybe our civic leaders are in the know.  We are being kept in the dark…