Sunday, August 16, 2015

The £180 million library that couldn’t afford books, and the homeless young man who changed his life in a library: why we should fight for our libraries

Back in June 2013, the city of Birmingham (the one in the West Midlands rather than the one in Alabama) opened an amazing new library. Postmodern in design, it was estimated to have cost in excess of £183 million and was boasted as the largest public library in the UK and the largest regional library in Europe, as well as being the largest public cultural space in Europe.

Library of Birmingham, opened in 2013

An international design competition was held by the Royal Institute of British Architects and a shortlist announced in 2008. Dutch company Mecanoo were announced as the winners. Although reaction to the new design was generally very positive, there were one or two dissenting voices, including that of John Madin, architect of the Birmingham Central Library, built in 1974.

Birmingham Central Library

For a time this was the largest non-national library in Europe, and during 2010-2011 it had almost 1.2 million visitors. An icon to the Brutalist style in precast concrete, Madin argued that the new building was no better than the existing one, and that eighty percent of it had no natural light.

interior of the new Library of Birmingham

It may seem ridiculous to demolish the original building just forty years after it was built. OK, Prince Charles once described it as “looking more like a place for burning books than keeping them”. Although the Central Library was specifically designed for a long life and to stand hard wear with low maintenance costs, in 1999 a member of the public narrowly avoided being hit by a small piece of concrete which fell from one of the exterior cladding panels. Netting was installed to help prevent further incidents.

The old Central Library, after the fire of 1879

And initially the new Library of Birmingham was certainly popular. During its first year of opening, the new Library of Birmingham received 2.7 million visitors, making it the tenth most popular visitor attraction in the UK.

Just two years later, however, all is not well in this futuristic temple to the written word. Posters have been going up in branch libraries around the city asking for public donations of recently published books.

Indeed, in 2014 the library had to cut its opening hours to just forty per week, including six at weekends, and also had to let go a hundred staff. Now Birmingham City Council has had to ‘pause’ its book fund.

“It is a scandal that there has been huge public investment in a building which is now not fulfilling its intended purpose,” said a spokesperson for the Friends of the Library of Birmingham.

“The citizens of Birmingham are saddled with a massive £12 million per year debt repayment (to the private sector, naturally) and at the same time are finding it harder and harder to obtain their services, which should have been housed in the building.”

The council, meanwhile, have claimed that the book requests are the actions of the individual branches concerned and while they “do not expect the public to make up for cuts to the budget from the government” they, of course, “welcome any support the public wish to give.”

If anyone had any doubt about the value of libraries, they should look no further than the story of Jacob Lewis in the UK news this week.

22-year-old Jacob Lewis will be the first in his family to go to university

Jacob is a 22-year-old student from Cardiff in South Wales. Despite being homeless after a falling-out with his family which reduced him to sofa surfing, and being made redundant from his zero-hours’ contract at a nightclub, he’s just achieved A-level results that have seen him accepted for Cambridge University.

Jacob, who grew up on a council estate in northeast Cardiff, originally left school at 17. He admitted that his attendance in the years leading up to his exams had been down as far as 20 percent after he was bullied.

Nevertheless, he decided to go back to take A-levels. When he asked for time off for this from his work he was let go by his employer and was at times so short of money he was “barely eating”.

Jacob worked 24 hours a week for agencies and in nightclubs, although he was unable to keep his house and relied on borrowing friends’ sofas for much of the time. Fortunately he was able to access the student hardship fund at Coleg y Cymoedd, which helped with his 45-minutes-a-day travel and living expenses, even putting him up in a hotel when he had nowhere else.

Coleg y Cymoedd college, South Wales

In return for this faith, Jacob spent twelve hours a day in the college library studying and when the A-level exam results were announced this week he discovered he’d achieved four A*s – the highest rating – including 100 percent in history and law.

“I’m so incredibly grateful to the college for all they did for me. It’s been a trying time but it has been worth it,” Jacob said. “I haven’t got any firm career plans, but I have a sincere commitment to try and make the world a better place with the advantages that elite education will give me.”

The principal of Coleg y Cymoedd, Judith Evans, said, “Our exceptional performance at A-level is the deserved reward of two years’ hard work by the learners and staff who support them.”

Not to mention having a decent library.

This week’s Word of the Week is fanfaronade, meaning swaggering, arrogant boasting, blustering manner; ostentatious display. From the French fanfaronade and the Spanish fanfarronada, from fanfarón, meaning a braggart.


  1. Also related to 'fanfare', no doubt? Speaking of swaggering, arrogant, boasting, blustering... have you guys been reading the new Bloom County strips? Particularly the past 2-3 days applies here, I think. If not, go to:
    to see Berkeley Breathed's latest creations.

    1. Love the cartoons, EvKa. Donald Trump seems to be coming under a little fire at the moment, doesn't he?

  2. This is like reading another version of The Agony and the Ecstasy. I want to weep over the defunding of this magnificent library and the layoffs and lack of funds to buy books or do anything else.
    Libraries are so important; they were to me in my young life and still are. Everyone who loves reading had great library experiences.
    And this young man's achievements hail the positive aspects of public libraries.
    I hope people are up in arms over the cutbacks for the library and complaining to the government.
    We have problems in the States over defunding of libraries. The library website in my big city always asks for donations, and petitions are often circulated to oppose funding cuts.
    Children are effected, so are the elderly with fewer library branches and shorter hours.
    And the lack of books! If one went to my branch to cool off during the hot summer days, there would only be a few "best-sellers" to read. The shelves are nearly bare.

    1. Hi Kathy

      I know. I was as horrified as you about the cost of this library when they can't afford to stock it or staff it. Libraries have also been a big influence on my life, particularly back when I used to live on a boat and we didn't have the room for books of our own. And when I published my first book, it was my local public library, not the local chain bookstore, who put on events for me and gave me support. Definitely worth fighting for.

  3. I love the story about the boy and the library. It's a tale of the world's successes. As for Birmingham and it's library, that's one of its farfaronade excesses...and there are so many of examples of that these days that I'd say the world is farfalen.

    1. His results are remarkable, aren't they, Jeff? As for the Library of Birmingham, it's just very very sad.

  4. But people like this boy need libraries. That's one of the major necessities of life, like health care, food, housing that people need to nurture their minds.

    A friend was telling me that her three grandchildren watch and listen to the Internet and its social media and games for hours on end. When I asked if they read books, she -- a constant reader -- said sadly that they do not.

    If libraries are cut back or closed and all children do is play video games or go on Facebook or other social media sites, how can they develop as people, learn about other cultures, countries, experiences, emotions?

    This is all such a tragedy and it's absurd.

    What horrific priorities these governments have. Children's minds matter.