Whitby and Gambles

Alan  Clawley comments on the two main architects of the Library of Birmingham’s future plans. 

In November 2011 when the Library of Birmingham was only a concrete skeleton the council claimed it would put Birmingham on the world map of libraries. But, I wondered then, on this website, just how good the service inside its glamorous exterior would be.

It was a sure indication of Mike Whitby’s sense of priorities that he was happy to leave the design of the service itself to the home-grown talent of Brian Gambles. Unfortunately for the library service the Oxford-educated Gambles is, as far as I am aware, not acknowledged as a world-class librarian. His handling of the Library of Birmingham project has not been world-class and leaves questions posed by his predecessor, John Dolan, unanswered. 

Gambles presided over a gradual diminution of the Central Library whilst enthusiastically talking up the new Library of Birmingham. The cuts began as long ago as February 2008 when Archives and Local History were shut for a whole month to allow staff to organise the closure of Floor 7. The result was a reduction in shelf space and fewer study areas on Floor 6 due to the creation of conference rooms for hiring out. The time available for library users to request items from store was reduced by 20 hours a week and there was no service at all on Mondays. The outsourcing of services to CAPITA, their appointment as project managers for the new library and the way in which the Health Exchange was allowed to take over space previously occupied by Science and Technology were matters of concern except to Gambles. He asked us to believe him when he said that ‘normal service’ would be resumed on the day the new Library was opened. But when he told us that it would be 15 percent more efficient than the present one did he mean that it would use 15% less energy, or need 15% less staff to run it?

Last year Gambles was appointed Chief Executive of the Library of Birmingham Development Trust. Its chairman is businessman and accountant, Keith Bradshaw of Listers Motor Group. In a Post interview last year (10th October) Lister explained that a ‘strategic board’ with business leaders and council appointments was responsible for overseeing and providing corporate governance for the library; the Trust, he said, had been set up to raise funds and identify opportunities for the development of the library. In two years it had raised £3 million in donations and grants from a wide range of sources.

Gambles’ idea of selling naming rights for £10 million never happened and a plan to raise £35 million from the public by emulating the success of the Staffordshire Hoard likewise fizzled out.   

Now the city council is openly distancing itself from the Trust. The Post reported this week that the Library of Birmingham had been ‘ordered’ to make £1.65 million of cuts to running costs and ‘threatened’ with opening hour reductions if this wasn’t achieved. Deputy Leader Ian Ward gave the knife a further twist when he said that the Trust had ‘agreed’ to find £500,000 in savings. The rest, according the Ward, would be ‘plugged’ by the Council.  

Ward is also trying to distance himself from the Whitby administration that in 2007 committed the Council to building the Library. The Labour Group was in opposition then but it went long with the decision, despite obvious signs of a looming economic crisis. Sir Albert Bore could have stopped Whitby’s ‘folly’ if his group had voted against it in the Council, on Scrutiny Committees and ultimately on the Planning Committee. Now his Deputy is saying that the library specifications and running costs were set out in 2007, ‘during very different times’. Ward admits that the running costs are at a different level to those of the old Central Library. The costs, he says, ‘are substantially greater’.

Councillors can’t predict the future and it’s easy for Ward to blame a previous administration for a mistake that came home to roost seven years later. But it would make a refreshing change if Ward were to admit that a decision made by his own administration was a mistake, knowing what has happened since. That decision, made in 1999, set out to obliterate the work of a previous administration by demolishing the Central Library and all the other buildings in Paradise Circus. The vacant site would then be handed over to a private developer who would, the council believed, build something much better. Fifteen years and one global recession later the council doggedly pursues its outdated goal with little to show for its effort.

In the meantime, Mike Whitby is pictured in the House of Lords being enobled in his ermine robes whilst Brian Gambles, who was a highly vocal champion of the Library of Birmingham before it was opened, is strangely silent.

Read Steve Beauchampé’s article ‘Six years late and way over budget’ here.

3 thoughts on “Whitby and Gambles

  1. On the other hand the toilets are much better in the new.
    But if Gambles could be replaced by a proper librarian, the sooner the better please.

  2. Perhaps when they cut back the hours and/or level of service for balance they’ll announce it with a £300,000 media launch handled by Capita, get Malala back to do the honours, and maybe the local and national media will finally start asking the questions which they completely failed to back in September.

    • The latest I’ve heard is that the city council want to invite Malala to do the closing ceremony for Spring Hill library after its being open for 122 years. She’s already personally familiar with the concept of local informational resources being closed down as a matter of policy so it should empathically chime for her.

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