Tag Archives: Birmingham

Birmingham City Council’s library cuts: from world class city to mediocrity

This is an open letter from John Dolan, former Head of Libraries at Birmingham City Council, to Cllr. Mike Whitby, Leader of Birmingham City Council and Cabinet Member, Culture, copied to Randal Brew Cabinet Member, Finance and Ian Ward, opposition member for Culture.

Dear Councillors Whitby and Mullaney,

The Birmingham Post sets out cuts planned for Birmingham Libraries http://bit.ly/sFdMAC .This comes out one day before the last Council public consultation meeting on its budget plans. There was no mention of libraries in list of cuts up for public consultation. In all the public papers (at http://bit.ly/hhBqvJ); the words ‘library’ or ‘libraries’ are not used anywhere.

This is actually about dismantling the service through the back door while pretending to fix the front door. Birmingham has already dismissed most of the senior and middle management.

Previous cuts: What is the financial value of cuts and savings already made this financial year? Managers and staff? Bookfund? Other resources? The closed Children’s Mobile Library? The closed Schools Library Service? Maintenance budgets? Training budgets? Reduced hours? Libraries closed “for repair”?

Investment: What is being invested in library buildings, their maintenance, on re-opening libraries closed “for repair”? How many libraries already require repairs over say, £50,000? How much will be spent on self-service machines? What’s the timescale? Who will be charged with installing them and training staff?

People: Why does this report not say that, already, nearly all senior and middle management have been made redundant, that the majority of librarians are being made redundant? Why are you deliberately getting rid of librarian skills? How will you provide library services of any quality?

Volunteers: You talk of using volunteers. What skills will they need? What will be their responsibilities? Who will manage volunteers? How will they be trained? Will they be able to do information searches, tell stories to children, advise on reading, assist with homework, show people how to use the computer, plan and run summer reading/literacy programmes? Will they have access to my personal information?

Bookstart: Who will distribute the Government-funded ‘Bookstart’ books for babies as the ‘Bookstart’ librarian has been made redundant?

Income: Where’s the business plan for leasing rooms? How many rooms? Rooms are already ‘leased’ – so does this mean the end of reduced / free room use for voluntary community groups? What is the additional income forecast?-

Co-location: Which buildings are you planning to share with others? Aston has already moved to smaller premises; which others are to move?

Library of Birmingham: You have a chance to do something special to put Birmingham on the map. How much are the “savings being made on the £187 million Library of Birmingham”? Are you still planning for the LOB to be a “world class” library – in services as well as architecture?” How will the LOB work with and support local libraries in local communities? Do you have a revenue budget for the LOB? Will it be what was envisaged or will you downgrade the world class vision to the provincial ordinary

Community libraries: How do you envisage a community library will play an active part in community life if it’s only open “two days a week”?

Birmingham Library Services: This was an historic, outstanding and innovative public service. Will the library service be reunited as one service or remain divided across constituencies, duplicating and wasting resources? How much does each constituency have to save? What if some agree and others don’t? Or what has already been agreed out of public view?

Total savings: These savings were not in the list for consultation with the total savings target. Why were they omitted? Are they extra to those announced?

Public consultation: Why has there been no public information about these proposals? Why was this information deliberately omitted from the presentations at the public meetings? Why is there no public consultation about library service cuts? What does the council intend to do about that?

Would you accept that there is actually no strategic thinking here about public library services? There has been no meaningful consultation on library service cuts or its future. Isn’t your real intention to neglect and downgrade the service to be, at best, mediocre? How therefore, do you intend to meet your duties under library legislation? You must provide a “comprehensive and efficient library service” to everyone who wishes to use it. How will you do that?

Finally, you need to be told that the budget consultation papers are in such complex language and layout as to completely shatter the Council’s own rules on plain language.

I await your comments and explanations.

John Dolan OBE

What a valuable community resource

Sutton Coldfield library user John Pedder has kindly given us permission to reproduce the letter he wrote to his local newspaper about library services in his area. This was written in response to the Editor’s piece about Birmingham City Council’s apparent reluctance to reinstate Sutton Coldfield’s Library, which has been closed for several months since asbestos was discovered in the building.
Dear Sir, 
Ross Crawford’s View point last week should warn us of Birmingham Council’s lack of commitment to Library services in the community; for a town centre the size of Sutton Coldfield not to have a Library would be disgraceful.
Also, the Council’s latest cost-cutting proposal would see staff at the main Library in each constituency cut to 4 full time staff plus Saturday and  lunchtime assistants. This, together with an increase in opening hours to 6 days a week, would reduce the average number of staff on duty from about 6 to less than 2.5. It is ridiculous to expect a busy Library with typically 400-600 visitors per day to operate with so few staff.
The Council may claim that volunteers can make up the numbers, but as each volunteer is unlikely to work for more than one day a week, it would require at least 5 volunteers for every staff member lost – needing at least 25 volunteers for every main Library.
It would be better if the people making these decisions on the Council had actually worked in a Library and knew what a valuable community resource they provide.
John Pedder, Erdington.

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…