By Robert Benchley
Following the opening of the new Library of Birmingham, the Council has announced proposed closures of our local libraries. Most libraries in suburban areas and marginal constituencies are to survive, while Spring Hill, Aston, West Hill and Wylde Green are to close. If we add Bloomsbury in Nechells, which has been closed following the theft of lead from the roof, that makes three in Ladywood constituency, the most deprived part of Birmingham.
I lived opposite Spring Hill Library for some years till I moved down the road to Five Ways. It’s a successful local library, which has been refurbished over the last five years; the Council has spent over £380 000, while Tesco has also made a major contribution, spending an estimated £600 000. This was done in full knowledge of the fact that the Library of Birmingham was being built. As a result of the refurbishment, combined with the arrival of Tesco and the consequent redevelopment of the site next door, users have more than doubled to 48 500 per quarter, while book loans increased to 8,761 per quarter. The building provides space for community groups, and facilities such as internet use, vital when many benefit claims have to be made online, and many people have no access at home.
It’s been claimed that there is now no need for a library at Spring Hill, as it’s so close to the Library of Birmingham. However, they are completely different facilities. The LoB is in the wrong place for a community facility, and lacks the friendly atmosphere of Spring Hill. It’s a major regional reference library, with a completely different function. Both are vital, in their very distinctive roles.
Community libraries are important everywhere, but particularly in a deprived area like Ladywood. One of the causes of poverty is lack of skills, often literary skills. Anything which encourages reading should be fostered, not cut back. Libraries often become places of refuge, for students with no place to study at home, for instance, or become meeting places.
Obviously, the same applies to the other libraries under threat; I’ve concentrated on Spring Hill because it’s local. There’s been a longstanding tendency in Birmingham to go for city centre prestige projects at the expense of the rest of the city. In the 1980’s we had money taken from education and housing to pay for the ICC and the Indoor Arena. The city has now incurred major debt building the LoB; the cost of the building was £188 million, while interest obviously has to be added to that. The website alone cost £1.2 million, and isn’t particularly easy to navigate. The result of this is that other services are being cut back to pay for it, including other aspects of the library service.
This is the sort of issue where public pressure can make a huge difference, but it would be a terrible pity to campaign over one local library, and leave the others to close. We need a coordinated campaign across the city to force the Council to back off and ensure the future of these vital facilities.