Martin Sullivan, secretary of the Friends of The Libraries of Birmingham, writes about the future of the service.
Birmingham City Council has now agreed the city’s budgets, which incorporate the various cuts packages announced in October and finalised last month. Where does this leave the city’s libraries?
Our library service is at a crossroads:
i) the cut of £1.923 million to the community library service announced in October was confirmed this month, with a few details of implementation changed
ii) the new staffing levels and total opening hours are well below what is needed to provide a service reasonably resourced to meet public needs. A number of libraries will have reduced space as they move into accommodation with partners, or partners move in with them. This comes at the end of a period of hollowing out of the service on staffing (more than 120 jobs have gone at LoB and the community libraries), opening hours and continuing neglect of repairs and maintenance
iii) there are more cuts to come. The staffing levels proposed will be reduced for the library service by the stated aim to use staff to work for other organisations to earn income for BCC – this has already started with staff doing DWP work. This will accelerate as BCC seeks ‘partners’ for libraries (the outsourcing route) who will see the staff as a resource available to them as well as space in library accommodation
iv) the minimally resourced Tier 3 libraries are dependent on partners. If these associates run into problems with accommodation, money or volunteers – or simply lose interest in the project – these libraries could fold. The notion of libraries working with partners might seem attractive but it could lead to the dispersal of control of what is currently a unified service across a scatter of unrelated organisations.
v) the initial reaction to the final package, which was ‘ Oh well, the two proposed library closures have been withdrawn, what a relief, no problem’ needs to be seen against this massively reduced service. (NB while arrangements have been made for Aston Library, the future of Sutton Coldfield Library is still uncertain.)
vi) finally, don’t forget the massive cuts made earlier to The Library of Birmingham, with many valuable services axed and its opening hours shorn. This striking building stands closed to library users and tourists on Sundays and most evenings – like a silent monument protesting against the city for the way it has treated its libraries.
What for the future?
We need to convince the council that libraries are an asset to be nurtured and developed, not a financial liability. They are essential to the intellectual, cultural and educational life of the city. We need a modern flourishing library, supported by specialist librarians and in suitable, specialised accommodation. The city council is starting to plan a further stage of the development of the library service; this should not be a second round of cuts or dispersal to partners. The library service should be publicly owned, state funded and publicly managed.
There are two short-term actions which need to be taken:
i) collectively and individually we all need to keep a watch on our local libraries to check for signs of any further reductions in service or facilities as BCC’s new model is introduced. All libraries are potentially vulnerable. We see the following as needing special attention : Aston; Bartley Green; Bloomsbury; Castle Vale; Glebe Farm; Selly Oak; Stirchley; Tower Hill; West Heath. FOLOB will co-ordinate this activity. Once a library has gone, it is very difficult to get it back
ii) LoB should open on Sundays and more evenings with a full service. This will benefit tourism and the city’s image, which was much damaged by the cuts to its services, as well as library users. This would be a major public expression of the council’s commitment to the future of the library service and to a future of development rather than continuing cuts. After the past two+ years, library users and library staff deserve some good news!