Why partnerships are essential for the Library of Birmingham

Councillor Penny Holbrook, cabinet member for skills, learning and culture, talks about why partnerships are essential for the Library of Birmingham.

First of all, let’s deal with the obvious: this year’s cuts to the Library of Birmingham’s opening hours have been hugely controversial and difficult.

It is an extraordinary, iconic building and service that’s helped put Birmingham back on the map.  No-one ever wanted to do anything that undermined that, least of all the politicians whose job is to champion our city.

Now, with the announcement that we’ll be opening the doors of the Library from 9am until 9pm on weekdays, we’re back in a much more positive place, and it’s worth stepping back and reflecting on what has driven the downs and ups of the last twelve months.

Here in Birmingham City Council, we’re wrestling with how to maintain essential services to residents while taking £850m out of our annual budget, and cutting our workforce by around two-thirds.  In that context, any argument that starts from the premise that things should stay the same is never going to stack up, no matter how much we might wish it could.

Along with the scale of the cuts, the sheer pace of them also means that short-term solutions are unavoidable, while longer-term models are worked through.

I knew people would be upset and angry – as I was – by the cuts to the Library’s opening hours, but we couldn’t just sit back and hope that the storm of (justified) public anger would pass.

So even while we were making the difficult decisions needed to balance the books for the current financial year, we were also doing the long-term thinking about how we could draw in partners and services from inside and outside of the Council to turn the Library back around.

Birmingham is an exciting city and we have lots of people interested in working here, so by using the various elements of the council such as Marketing Birmingham, the digital agenda and interest in investment, we can maximise relationships with people and organisations.

Google had approached us about running a Digital Garage so this was a perfect opportunity to start the relationship between Google and the Library as it was the ideal solution for both of us. Although we already had a strong relationship with the British Library in terms of intellectual property, we approached them about widening the relationship; they particularly wanted to learn from the way we allow public access to our archives. Their vision statement says they want a bigger presence outside London, so this was a perfect approach for us to show what we could offer.

‘Partnership working’ may sound like a line we trot out, but it is in reality the only game in town.  When done properly, it is not just words; we can actually achieve amazing things alongside partners.  It is possible with imagination and passion to maintain public library services with new models of working.

I am passionate that Library services should remain public, but I also know people use libraries in different ways today than historically.  Access to and the love of books will always be important, but we have to also recognise if we want to keep library services public, we have to think about how we use the buildings they occupy and how people use those buildings today.

And that is exactly how we have taken our wonderful Library, through a budget crisis, and into a genuinely sustainable future for one of the country’s top tourist attractions.


This article first appeared in The Guardian

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