Why we need the Library of Birmingham now more than ever

The Library of birmingham(Photo courtesy of Paul Capewell, Flickr/Photopin)

In September 2013 the Library of Birmingham was opened by Malala Yousafzai. It felt like a time of great pride and optimism for the city and created worldwide interest.  In December 2014, on the same day that Malala went to collect her Nobel Peace Prize, it was announced that the library was to face drastic cuts to it’s services, employees and opening hours.

In her memorable opening speech she said that “a city without a library was a graveyard”.  If the proposed cuts go ahead there’s a danger that the library itself might start to feel like a graveyard. Opening hours will be reduced from 73 to 40, staffing cut by 50% and the acquisition of new books put on hold.  With these proposed cuts and libraries being closed around the country it raises questions about the role of the library as a physical space within a digital age.

The Library of Birmingham interior

“Libraries offer more than just books, CDs and DVDs. They have become the portal to a whole range of material for education, entertainment, and self- improvement.”  – Independent Library Report for England, December 2014 (Photo courtesy of Simon Felton, Flickr/Photopin)

It was clear from the outset the Library of Birmingham was never just about books.  In my first impression when it opened, I saw how it was also a place to discover exciting new digital material including hours of films in the BFI Mediatheque, the dedicated eLibrary and apps for mobile devices to help visitors explore the library in greater depth.  Selected items from the millions that make up the Library’s Archive, Heritage and Photography collections are also available for exploration online.

“All we will have is collections which are only available to researchers by appointment and that is not what we wanted.” – Paul Hill, Photographer 

If the cuts go ahead the expert archivists of the Library’s photography collection will be made redundant.  The staff conserve, catalogue and set up public exhibitions of the collection which is of national and international significance. Many influential photographers who have donated to the collection are outraged at its potential closure as they were assured it would always be made available to the public. Although some of the photography collection has been digitised and is available to view online, with no expert staff to continue curating it I wonder how long it will remain a useful, negotiable resource.

“Librarians can help people navigate that world.” – Neil Gaiman from his lecture ‘Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming’

When the staff disappear so does a wealth of knowledge that can offer valuable guidance and insight to visitors. This is essential in order to allow people to discover new worlds both in the physical library and the resources online.  As with all content online, without careful presentation by experts in the field it will get lost in a swelling sea of digital information.

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