Monday, September 14, 2015

Controversy Over The Library of Birmingham by Sorcha of Writing About Books

Hi, I'm Sorcha and I'm going to start at the beginning. I live in Birmingham, UK, and have always disliked the previous Central Library. It was built in the 1960s, is described as “classic brutalist architecture” (i.e. darn ugly to look at), and was always dark, dingy and grotty to visit. (Gallery: Goodbye Birmingham Central Library)

Previously a manufacturing city, Birmingham has been seeing a large financial investment since the late 1980s, resulting in whole swathes of the city being rebuilt to help make the place live up to the reputation of England's Second city (competing with Manchester for the title).

Moving into the 21st Century and attention turned to what to do with the Central Library. Brummies have a history of keeping ugly but emotionally significant buildings – when coming to rebuild the old Bullring Shopping Centre, everyone was fine until someone included The Rotunda in the demolition plans – cue uproar, the Bullring being rebuilt and The Rotunda is still untouched in all it's 1960 ugliness! It was a close call as to what to do with The Central Library, with as many people wanting to keep it as wanting to tear the thing down (guess which side I was on!).

Finally, the decision was made to build a new library near by, transfer all services over, then close and demolish the old one. So, the new one was built and opened in 2013 ( Small controversy at the time in that 4 local libraries were closed in order to balance the books and justify the investment and opening hours of the new library. This meant that people on the outskirts of Birmingham, rather than having a Library on their doorstep, had to travel up to 30 minutes to get to a Library, often with children or the infirm and using public transport instead of a short walk down their High Street.

Everybody lauded the new library....for a while. It was to be open 7 days a week, to 8 pm most evenings, having a cinema, meeting rooms, cafes, BFI films on tap, a Shakespeare room, author and child friendly events – and even books you could borrow! Malala Usefzai – Nobel Peace Prize winner and now Birmingham resident - opened it. The famous and the glamorous came to visit.

Unfortunately it came at a cost. The building had been commissioned and designed in the late 2000s, at the height of the financial bubble, cost £189million to build, and opened after the crash. In 2014, it was announced that the opening hours would be reduced from 70+ to 40 per week, closing completely on Sundays. Community libraries across the city – not just the big one – have allegedly been banned from buying in new books and there's been a call for people to donate books under 12 months old in some libraries.

Public Services (e.g. everything from Rubbish Collections, Road sweepers and through to the availability of Libraries, books and Library staff) are provided by the local City Council and they get their funding from two sources: Central Government – who are continually cutting or maintaining budgets – and the people of the city via Council Tax. If the Council Tax isn't allowed to increase, then services have to be cut, and it's a fine line that the Council have to navigate and they rarely get to make a decision without criticism from one source or another.
Inside the Library of Birmingham

As for me? I wasn't using the new library all that often when it was open later. I am a creature of habit and when I get home from work, I tend to head home and not go in the opposite direction to visit the library. I haven't borrowed a book from a library in 20 years (and 3 cities), not because I don't read, but I have hundreds of books in my house that have still to be read and I have the disposable income to buy the books I really want to keep. I do occasionally make it up there for a specific event, but that's generally on a weekend when I have time to linger. Therefore the reduced times don't affect me as much as it does others.  

I am certain that there are people who use it much more than I do: those who cant afford to buy books; students who need to look up information not available on the internet; people who plan to meet friends, and support where they can; people who don't have ready or free access to the internet. I am lucky in that I am covered in these areas though other methods.

So, as the curse goes: May you live in interesting times. The furor over everything rumbles on, and I'm waiting for the next chapter.

Visit Sorcha on her blog, Writing About Books, and leave a comment or question on this fascinating post below!

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