The library of the future?

When I attended the opening of the Library of Birmingham last year it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement. I had been to the building site several times over the previous few years, interviewed LoB boss Brian Gambles as the project neared conclusion , and when I first toured the finished product I was deeply impressed: the space balanced books, digital and community in awe-inspiring surroundings.

And then Birmingham’s adopted daughter Malala Yousafzai opened the LoB to the public with a moving, tub-thumping speech on the importance of books and education, declaring, perhaps in a nod to JFK at the Berlin Wall: "I am a Brummie!"

Yes, I thought, the library of the future is here. The most expensive public library project in European history (about £188m in the end, which was actually  £4m under budget) was indeed, as Gambles told me on the day, “well worth the money”.

Turns out, due to massive budget cuts, the library of the future may soon employ a skeleton staff (100 of the 188 employees face redundancy) and be open a paltry 40 hours a week. The immediate thought is that would fast turn the LoB into something like one of the Great Pyramids, a beautiful structure that is essentially a mausoleum.

Perhaps I should have been wary of the Banquo at the feast that opening day: preceding Malala’s speech was one by smug, oleaginous culture minister Ed Vaizey, gladly taking the plaudits for something his coalition government had little to do with (most of the LoB building budget was a locked in capital expenditure, with moneys agreed in those heady, pre-credit crunch days of 2007).

The coalition, as we have pointed out ad infinitum in The Bookseller, has been a most virulently anti-library government. Yes, there is context. Library cuts are, of course, amid the reduction of other government-backed services in the age of austerity. The LoB’s specific proposed cuts are part of huge city-wide budget decimation (over 1,000 of 6,000 city employees may lose their jobs in the next year) which the Labour-controlled Birmigham City Council says it has been forced to implement due to the central government axe. We fight in libraries’ corners here at The Bookseller, but realise there is a wider picture; Brummies will soon be deprived of some very basic services across the board.

That said, the proposed cuts to the LoB are horrifically shortsighted. The LoB is the most visited public library in Britain: 2.7 million visitors in its first year (Norwich’s main library is second with about 1.3 million), up 108% on the last full year of the old Birmingham Central Library.

Part of that, of course, is that the LoB has become a tourist destination, which makes proposals to reduce opening hours all the more barmy for Birmingham, let us be brutally honest, is not a place many people come from far and wide to visit. Taking away one of the main reasons newcomers are flocking to your city is penny wise and pound foolish. Yet the LoB has also been doing the usual business of libraries very well: library card membership shot up 140% in the year to 250,000 in its first year, while 316,000 books, CDs and DVDs were loaned.

Plus, there is that soft power that libraries have. Of those 2.7 million visitors there will be students doing homework, children playing, people attending business meetings. A library is a de facto, not immediately measurable, day care, tutoring service and community centre which goes far beyond its primary books and learning role.

Back to that opening day. One striking thing that Malala said was her warning that a city without a proper library was like a “graveyard”. The proposed LoB cuts are in consultation and the city council says it will be soliciting the public’s views. Here’s hoping Brummies make their voices heard and Malala’s warning does not become a reality.