Gambles – must do better

Alan Clawley has some questions for Birmingham’s Central Library Chief Officer, Brian Gambles.

Birmingham Central Library - under construction

Birmingham Central Library - under construction

The chief officer in charge of the Central Library, Brian Gambles, is a wizard with words when it comes to telling us what wonders will be found in the new Library of Birmingham, but unapologetic in public about the dire state of the current service he provides in Paradise Place.

In a long article in the Birmingham Post two weeks ago, which should be read in full for its priceless anodyne quotations, Gambles avoids mentioning real cuts to staff and traditional library services but enthuses endlessly about the various ‘twenty-first century’ giimmicks that will occupy the new building, some of which he hopes will be commercially funded or sponsored and thus cost the Council nothing.

Such ‘add-ons’ are not unwelcome but Gambles has never explained why we can’t have them now, in the present building, which is rapidly emptying of content and staff. Instead of demonstrating his ideas to library users today in the Central Library he is putting people off libraries altogether by the sad, rundown state of the service for which he is responsible.

Does anyone believe now that there will be enough of a service left to fill the bigger building when it opens next summer? I can see acres of empty space where visitors wander around, ride the escalators for fun, or drink coffee on the garden terrace whilst the core service continues to shrink.

Perhaps the new library will be made 15% more efficient by replacing staff with more self-service machines not unlike those that we find now at supermarket checkouts. Paradoxically, Gambles seems to be saying that spending £200 million on a new library is really part of the cuts and income-raising strategy. Hence the idea of selling naming rights for the new library for £10 million. Of course no company would pay to have its name on the present building.

Another speaker, Jay Jordan, president and chief executive of OCLC, a library technology company that has operated in Birmingham for 30 years who organised the conference said, ‘Libraries are under huge pressure around the world from a budgetary standpoint. How do you optimise the physical space and the digital offerings that you can provide? The library is not a book repository any more. It cannot be – then it will go away’.

I would have pointed out that the Central Library today is a glaring example of failure to optimise the use of the physical space.

Gambles, as always, is ready to give a glowing account of the features of the new library – outdoor amphitheatre, garden terraces, a recording studio and free access to the National Film Archives. Traditional lending services will be complemented by 24/7 online access, a hub for writing CVs and gaining qualifications, childrens’ storytelling and arts and crafts workshops. It will also be physically linked to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

As I have said to him on many occasions, all these activities except the physical link to the REP can be done today in the present Library or in any other community building.

Gambles’ management of the Central Library has been disastrous and there can be very few library users who are satisfied with the standard of provision there. Instead of paying a public relations company £300,000 to market the new library he should ask library users what they think of the current service. He could then win them over by trying out his ideas for the new library in the present building.

It’s not too late for him to start.