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INSULTING CONSULTING

12-05-2009

A public consultation session on the proposed new Library of Birmingham last week at times verged on farce. Steve Beauchampé hopes this is not indicative of the overall project.

Initial images of Birmingham’s proposed new central library by Dutch architectural practice Mecannoo have left me undecided, at least from an aesthetic standpoint.

I do not dislike the building, which reminds me a little of the Cube, Architect Ken Shuttleworth’s adjunct to the Mailbox, currently taking shape on Commercial Street, though I’m struggling to see it as the icon the City Fathers are hoping for.

Meanwhile, I have a degree of fondness for John Madin’s existing library structure (and should its days as a library be numbered then with an Urban Splash-style makeover the core of his 1970s complex would make a fine extension to the Museum and Art Gallery), and very much admire the dogged and relentless manner in which Alan Clawley and his colleagues at the Friends of the Central Library campaign group have outfought those in Birmingham City Council who would flatten the building without a second thought, while exposing the financial frailties and searing absence of accountability at the heart of BCC’s new Library of Birmingham plans.

So it was with a genuine sense of open-mindedness that I arrived at the Central Library foyer for one of the ‘focus group’ sessions that forms part of BCC’s consultation process for the new development.

Thirty minutes, eight members of staff, and four floors of searching later (during which time I was repeatedly told that no such meeting was booked and also that neither was Mecannoo’s model of the new library on display, as had been promised), myself and the only two other people who attended the session, were still searching for the correct meeting room. Apparently, the organisation of a similar meeting held earlier in the week had been similarly chaotic.

Finally two women in Library of Birmingham T-shirts (clearly branding matters!) arrived and the meeting started...well, sort of.

Despite T-shirt 1 repeatedly urging us to “think outside the box” and insisting that our comments would “add value” it soon became clear that it wasn’t a box, but a straightjacket that we were being strapped into.

Off the agenda was any discussion of the building’s architectural merits (actually I knew this beforehand but the other two attendees didn’t); also banned were questions concerning the building’s footprint, the number of floors, layout thereof, despite our being told that none of these things had been determined (which is at odds with some of the claims made at the official launch on April 2nd).

Instead, we were to discuss five specific themes, including the welcome visitors might receive, café facilities, would we like a shop...ooh, all the things vital to the world class library service LOB supremo Brian Gambles and his team insist his £193m budget will buy.

T-shirt 1 would ask the questions, T-shirt 2 would transfer our thoughts on to a flip chart with a big marker pen. Well sorry, but no way! No way had I travelled into town and been messed around for 40 minutes to discuss whether I wanted Costa or Starbucks to sign a ten-year lease on cafe facilities!!

We compromised. It was agreed that we could raise our points and ideas on what we wanted from the new library more or less at random (at least that’s how we played it) and T-shirts 1 and 2 could work out which of their blessed little boxes they fitted in.

Ideas began flowing; from the fairly obvious - more lavatories, wider escalators, better natural lighting - to a proposal that visitors could access computers in reception to find out in which department a specific book or document is stored.

The need to digitise local newspapers, allowing them to be read on computers rather than the slow, awkward and inefficient microfilm and fiche readers currently employed was also discussed as well as need for staff to be visible and knowledgeable. ;

Laudable though these ideas may be, it is the absolute need to retain the essential tenets of a library service, at a time when these are increasingly under threat; that is most crucial.

A public library is about the three ‘R’s (sic); reading, writing and research. Whether it be via books on shelves, through a computer terminal, whether it be from a reading group, a writer’s workshop or children dressing up to celebrate the release of JK Rowling’s next book, whether it be via the meticulous extraction of research material from an 1884 edition of the Birmingham Planet newspaper or someone just nipping in to borrow a novel from the lending library, whether it be in a noisy and excited space, or the quietest of rooms, it is the valuing and appreciation of printed matter, of library service’s unique collections, that should underpin every decision about the Library of Birmingham.

Sadly, I am far from confident. In recent years the Central Library has been shedding shelf space, stock and experienced staff at a worrying rate. Sections of the building have been abandoned to courting couples, reception desks removed on several floors, carals (individual research booths) shut and nearly half of one floor turned into a (usually unstaffed) health advice centre (which I understand allowed library services to access additional funding streams to pay for redecoration).

With the dead hand of consultants Capita overseeing this project, expect anything that might generate an income to be included and anything that doesn’t to be scaled ; back or left out completely.

What this limited consultation exercise tells us is that whether we want cappuccino, latte or some fresh faced assistant in a LOB sweatshirt greeting us with the words: “Hi, there’s a meditation workshop in room LOB G4C, unless you’re here for the aerobics workout, that’s between the computer terminals in Social Sciences” is way more important than whether there’s a good enough collection of books available.

And do you know, I don’t think T-shirts 1 or 2 mentioned those increasingly rare items unprompted once during our entire meeting! ; ;

Back in 2002, I attended a public consultation relating to the proposed move of the library to Eastside with the then Deputy Head of Library Services, the estimable and sadly missed John Dolan.

We talked for over three hours, nothing was off limits and we finally left the building beyond it’s 8pm closing time. The fundamentals of running Birmingham Central Library have not changed and will still apply in 10, 20 or 30 years time. Notes were taken and I imagine that somewhere in the New Library of Birmingham (as the Richard Rogers building was then called) files they can be accessed.

I suggest that Mr. Gambles and his team find and read them, and see what library users come up with when their thinking is not constrained like the filigree metal cage Mecannoo plan encasing the LOB in.

The consultants for the Library of Birmingham and the city of Birmingham are invited to reply to Steve's personal comments. ; Just email editor@thestirrer.com and we’ll publish your reply in full.

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