Saturday 7 January 2012

Children in Birmingham's Libraries

Spring Hill Free Library, now Tescos/Library
Many of the libraries in Birmingham still have 'FREE LIBRARY' printed clearly over their entrance - reference to our proud tradition as part of the free library movement, dating back nearly two centuries now.  It must have been an exciting time, bringing reading and 'enlightenment' to the masses, who had not had access to reading on such a scale before.

Birmingham Library Service delivery plan 2010-2011 still begins boldly:

'A free comprehensive, universal enquiry service using hard copy, electronic, and on line resources, staff expertise and highly specialised (sometimes unique) resources.'

However, with the Council looking for value for money, and reduction in costs overall, the council will be looking closely at how library provision is provided, not least because of the spectacular building of a new Library of Birmingham.  Looking to statistics of library usage nationally, there has been a gradual reduction in the total number of people visiting libraries,the number of library staff, and libraries.  But a closer analysis reveals some more promising stats:
  • Children's participation remains buoyant
  • Children's issues remain high, fiction even growing by 10%
  • Visits to library websites show huge growth year on year 
See Taking a closer look at Library Statistics

Even in the Strategic design brief for Library of Birmingham in 2008, it was recognised:

'Birmingham in the 21st century is ambitious and dynamic, youthful and diverse. It is the economic powerhouse and regional capital of the West Midlands. Home to more than1 million citizens, it has the youngest age profile of any European city and by 2020 it will be the UK’s first predominantly black and minority ethnic city. The Library of Birmingham will symbolise Birmingham’s identity as a global city with a local heart.'
Kings Heath Library Reopens, earlier in 2011

Not surprising, given Mike Whitby's involvement and Brian Gamble's leadership and award winning expertise in marketing, that the new library should prioritise improving use of ICT and services for young people and children.  Birmingham Library Services also continues to support projects like Children's Lives - working to engage more people to explore our archives.

What is more questionable is how library services for children and young people will be delivered as a whole, across Birmingham. How will Community Libraries relate to services provided in the Library of Birmingham?  Anecdotally from my work in schools, most children in Birmingham have visited their local library, and very few have visited the Central Library.  Those that have gone to town, will almost certainly have regularly visited local libraries first.

Recent changes we have seen have not been promising - Early in 2011 Birmingham schools library service was closed.  BCC figures suggest staff costs represent over half the total cost for our library service, so not surprising it has been targeted for cuts.  We now have only one constituency library per constituency, with at least one qualified librarian.  The other libraries face even more severe staff cuts and significant reduced hours of opening - particularly pressing at weekend and after-school hours.  With the closure of many other community venues, like youth clubs (3 out of 4 in my local area), across our city, libraries are one of very few safe places there are for young people to meet, study and learn.

For school groups visiting libraries, if there are staff available to assist the visit, the school is likely to be charged for this service.  Reduced staff also means libraries will be under pressure to reduce family events and outreach, like visits to nurseries, playgroups, and stay and plays - a good first introduction to reading for many children.

These are significant barriers to children and young people accessing reading and libraries, particularly from poorer families who are less likely to have regular access to computers.  Charges are likely to continue creeping into our libraries and increase these barriers, as does a more centralised library service making it harder for people to walk to their own library.  It may be tempting to charge more, but how risky a strategy is it to move away from Free Library principles?  It may increase revenue, but at what cost to the people who most use and need our libraries?

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