Not just a pretty face

Alan Clawley asks another question of the Library of Birmingham.

Who is responsible for giving us what we now consider to be a mixed blessing – the Library of Birmingham? On one hand it is a popular visitor attraction earning five-star reviews in the social media. People queue to get in to make sure of a good seat or a place with a computer. On the other hand the few staff that run it can’t properly serve the needs of the serious researcher or even the enthusiastic reader.

In its last year the LoB Development Trust was only kept afloat by dint of its well-heeled trustees providing 85% of its income from their own pockets. Now it is being would up and the great and good – such as eminent historian David Cannadine and the Library’s architect Francine Houben – who sat on its board, have gone home. There’s no money left to employ its Chief Executive, retired librarian Brian Gambles.

How can these once-optimistic VIPs not feel a sense of failure and disappointment at the new library’s early fall from grace? No-one is yet talking about demolishing it but plans are already afoot to adapt part of the building for uses other than that of a library – a strategy that the council rejected when it was suggested for the Central Library. The first floor of the new building is now closed to the public and the bare white partitions that have been installed to provide classrooms for the Brasshouse Language Centre block the views out that were once a top selling point.

Should we blame the architect for not asking the right questions during the design process? Should architects have to convince themselves that their beautiful building has a viable long-term management plan before plunging ahead with their architectural design? They are of course, primarily interested in whether their client can pay the builder as well as their own fees which are usually based on a percentage of the building cost. Architects have no legal responsibility for the running of the building once it’s been handed over.

Francine Houben’s role as a Trustee would have been purely advisory, and may even have precluded her from being paid for adaptation work on the Library. Perhaps that is just as well for as she must be unhappy to say the least to see her original concept watered down so. I would expect another architect to have been called in to avoid embarrassment all round.

We can’t blame the government as it was never party to Birmingham City Council’s decision to build a new library. Although the council is legally obliged to provide a public library service, it already had a fully-functioning 40-year-old Central Library that was probably still being paid for. The council’s pleas for government funding, such as Private Finance Initiative, were refused so the council borrowed all the money instead. The government can’t therefore be blamed for failing to give the Council enough money to pay for a new library that it didn’t ask for.

Should we blame our City Councillors for failing to challenge their leaders’ decisions? As they rarely express their views in public it’s impossible to tell what they really think. We have to assume therefore that they all agreed with their leaders’ decisions. Building an expensive new Library never figured in party manifestos at election time so it was never put to the popular vote. They are therefore entirely responsible for the outcome and for finding solutions.

Ironically, the people that are left with the Library’s problems are not those who were primarily responsible for creating them. Those people have long since left the stage.

One thought on “Not just a pretty face

  1. What’s worse is that first floor is the most important floor (most accessible large floor) in the building, and yet will no longer be a floor of the library.

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