Perilous times for the Library of Birmingham and all public libraries

How did you first fall in love with reading? I have a distinct memory of going along to my local public library and selecting picture books from a very small but what seemed a tremondously exciting children’s section. Marvellous stories full of colour, imagination, adventure, and the music of language that I could share with my parents. I now take my own daughter to our public library and share that same wonderful experience with her in the hope that it too will turn her into a life-long reader.

However, if I lived in a rural area or in one of the poorer parts of our large cities it turns out that I might not have that luxury. Shocking that access to public libraries is now becoming a luxury rather than a civic right. I firmly believe in the ideology behind public libraries as places where education is free and accessible to all. In recent years the idea that we are all entitled to have access to information, to the pleasure and intellectual stimulation of reading, has been corroded by severe funding cuts and arbitruary restructuring of staff and services in public libraries (with apparently very little understanding of what library staff do!).

The proposed cuts at the Library of Birmingham have caused outrage are symptomatic of a much wider and worrying move towards the disintegration of our country’s literacy and the right to learn. For those libraries being closed in rural areas there is little promise or hope of outreach to those communities that have been disenfranchised. As the proposed cuts to the Library of Birmingham has demonstrated ‘outreach’ is near the top of the list for axing.

Public libraries also hold some of the most significant collections in our country, belonging to the public and the academic community alike. Libraries live at the heart of our communities and support us in many ways beyond the important job of issuing books. They empower people, provide a means to support and community engagement. Are we really ready to let something so vital to the health of all citizens be taken from us? What will replace libraries at the heart of our communities if they continue to be subjected to this piece-meal disintegration? Personally, I think the shopping centre a poor, unhealthy, demoralising and mind-numbing commercial substitute.

The Library of Birmingham proposed cuts are an important landmark that must be fought if we want to stop the erosion of public literacy and pride in our civic institutions.

The proposed cuts:

  1. Opening hours at the Library of Birmingham will be reduced from 73 per week to 40, with effect from 1 April 2015.
  2. Events and exhibitions will stop unless they can be externally funded.
  3. Business support, learning, children’s, reading, music and archive services other than counter transactions will cease, except where external funding can be identified.
  4. Outreach and community engagement work will cease, except where external funding can be identified.
  5. The budget to buy new books will be further reduced.

There are many ways in which you can have your say:

The City Council wants to know what you think about these proposals – have your say by completing the online survey: https://www.birminghambeheard.org.uk/budget/2015

You can also:

If you are looking for inspiration the following letter by Professor Ewan Fernie of the Shakespeare Institute in response to the cuts is essential reading that cuts to the quick of why libraries are so important to us as a society:

I write to express my profound concern and disappointment regarding the proposals to cut opening hours, events and exhibitions, children’s, music, learning and archive services at the Library of Birmingham.  I believe this would be a terrible mistake and I urge the Council, in the strongest terms, to reconsider.

Under the leadership of Brian Gambles, the new Library has put Birmingham on the map once more as a civic force to be reckoned with.   This is in the best tradition of the city’s first and fullest flourishing under Joseph Chamberlain.   In the 1890s, Birmingham–which had so recently been an infamously dirty and degraded place–came to be regarded as the best governed city in the world.  What began this extraordinary transformation was its distinctive ‘civic gospel’ of democratic responsibility to the city’s entire community, and it is important to stress in the context of the proposed cuts that it all began with the Library.

For the major and initiating statement of Birmingham’s impressive ‘civic gospel’ was George Dawson’s address when the Library first opened.  This historic speech proclaimed ‘that a great community like Birmingham is not to be looked upon as a fortuitous concourse of human atoms, or as a miserable knot of vipers struggling in a pot each aiming to get his head above the other in the fierce struggle of competition’.  No, the fact of the city’s investment in a great Library for all expressed instead the valuable conviction ‘that a town like this exists for moral and intellectual purposes’.  Dawson suggested ‘that one of the highest offices of civilization is to determine how to give access to the masterpieces of art and of literature to the whole people’.  But he wasn’t sentimental about this; he understood that it must be paid for.  ‘When we speak of this as a Free Library’, he therefore said, ‘we simply mean that the use is free.  We all know that the Library must be paid for, and we shall all of us, I believe, rejoice in paying for it’.  We must, I believe myself, continue to pay for it.  But I also believe that this is a positive opportunity to rediscover the inspiring spirit of Dawson’s ‘civic gospel’.

As I say, the spirit in which the Birmingham Library was founded helped to make Birmingham one of the greatest and most forward-looking cities in the world.  The wonderful new Library building announces our opportunity to renew that legacy and, consequently, our city in our own time.  The Library is potentially, as Brian Gambles and others have said, a ‘people’s palace’.  As a Professor of Shakespeare Studies in the University of Birmingham, I am in a position to remark that it boasts one of the very best Shakespeare collections on the planet.  But what is really remarkable about this is that: it is an internationally significant Shakespeare collection that BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE OF BIRMINGHAM.   And of course there is much more to the Library than even its splendid Shakespeare holdings.

We must not squander one of the most historic and special legacies that Birmingham possesses.  We should be building up the Library, making much more of this unique and important municipal resource, not cutting it back.  And I must stress as I close that it would be especially perverse, even criminal, to make such devastating and swingeing cuts when the Library’s spectacular new building offers the best ever opportunity to rediscover and renew its inspiring legacy for today.  It is a legacy that could help to make Birmingham an extraordinary example of civic ambition and responsibility within the UK and even to the world once again.

Yours sincerely,

Ewan Fernie

Professor Ewan Fernie
The Shakespeare Institute
University of Birmingham

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

(all views expressed in this blog post are my own – but hopefully shared!)

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4 thoughts on “Perilous times for the Library of Birmingham and all public libraries

  1. Pingback: Standing up for freedom: the Library of Birmingham and Charlie Hebdo | The Shakespeare blog

    • Completely agree Sylvia – thank you for your moving blog. I reread Malala’s speech last week and as you say, the proposed cuts seem like the worst betrayal of her aspirations and all our hopes for the Library.

  2. Karin, Your blog and Ewan’s letter puts the case for continuing funding of the library in the most powerful moral terms.We might also remember that even the great Shakespeare collection would not have developed had the penny on the rates not been allowed. This library was funded by the pennies of the poor and it is their needs that must be paramount in sustaining it.

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