Saving the Library of Birmingham’s Photographic Archive

The new Library of Birmingham was opened in September 2013 by Malala Yousafszai the young Pakistani human rights activist and Nobel laureate. The old Birmingham Central Library, famous for its brutalist style architecture was opened in 1973 and is due to be demolished this month it having twice failed to be given listed status despite the best efforts of English Heritage.

Library of Birmingham

Library of Birmingham

The Library of Birmingham is home to a nationally as well as internationally significant photographic archive and is also the centre of activity for “seeing, studying and exchanging knowledge about historical and contemporary photography”. A number of well known people from the photographic world (including Paul Hill, Daniel Meadows, Martin Parr, John Blakemore, Brian Griffin, Vanley Burke, John Myers, Nick Hedges, Anna Fox, Max Kandhola, and Val Williams) agreed to the library acquiring their archives or collections on the basis that they would be accessible to the public as well as specialist researchers. In addition in 2012 the Library established GRAIN, an initiative aimed at developing the library as a strategic hub and network for photography and photographers with support from the Arts Council.

So why is this all about to change and why is Birmingham City Council about to put a stop to all this pioneering photographic work having invested £189m in a new library with all these fantastic services for citizens of Birmingham and beyond? You know the answer of course: austerity measures!

Birmingham City Councils 2015/16 budget consultation has been published which states that it proposes to reduce:

  • the number of staff and services at the Library of Birmingham;
  • the opening hours from 73 to 40; and
  • the support we give to community libraries.

So what does this mean in practice? In the councils own words that:

  • Outreach and community engagement work will cease, other than where external funding and resources can be identified. No new books will be bought in 2015-16.
  • Opening hours at the Library of Birmingham will be reduced from 73 per week to 40, with effect from 1st April 2015.
  • Events and exhibitions will stop unless they can be fully funded and resourced from external sources.
  • All business, learning, children’s, reading, music and archive services other than counter transactions will cease, except where external funding and resources can be identified.

Why does this matter? Why are archive services and the maintenance of a dusty old photographic collection important when the council is under fire from Ofsted for providing inadequate child protection arrangements and an aging population is putting more pressure on councils like Birmingham’s?

The academic and photography critic Francis Hodgson is fairly unequivocal in this matter saying in this blog post that he does not “want to make judgments between two essentials when there’s only enough money for one. I’m not a triage nurse on a battlefield. Other people do that stuff. And they’re [Birmingham City Council] about to get it horribly, disgracefully, and damagingly wrong.”

In an ideal world money would be available to fund not only services that are essential to our protection and physical health and well being but also to those services that nourish our intellectual, curious and creative selves. Sadly, when times are hard, it is inevitably the latter which see the most swingeing as well as earliest cuts, as is the case now.

As an enthusiastic consumer and creator of photography, as well as an occasional user of the new library, I would love that the photographic archival and curating services be kept but can appreciate the huge dilemma the council faces.

In 2012/13 the Arts Council undertook a major research project Envisioning the library of the future whose aim was to understand the future for libraries, and how we can enable them to develop. The research found that:

“public libraries are trusted spaces, open to all, in which people continue to explore and share the joys of reading, information, knowledge and culture. It is clear that people value the services that libraries provide and will continue to do so. Indeed, there is a clear message that there is a compelling and continuing need for a publicly funded library service.”

It also acknowledged however that libraries were under great pressure, not least from some of the things highlighted above, as well as advances in technology, which affect the ways in which people want to connect to information and culture. In order to foster a successful, sustainable library service in the light of the various challenges, the Arts Council proposed four priority areas for development:

  1. place the library as the hub of the community
  2. make the most of digital technology and creative media
  3. ensure that libraries are resilient and sustainable
  4. deliver the right skills for those who work in libraries

Whilst these are all commendable aims (and the Library of Birmingham certainly achieves the first two) they do not address the central challenge of exactly how to make sure libraries are resilient and sustainable.

In December 2014 the Department for Culture, Media & Sport published the Independent Library Report for England which looked into how the public library system could best work in the future. Its recommendations, whilst commendable, were somewhat short on hard actions preferring instead to defer the whole issue and recommended the setting up of a task force to work with local authorities and “help them improve, revitalise and if necessary, change their local library service, while encouraging, appropriate to each library, increased community involvement”.

So, what to do?

It has always struck me that the broader community of photography (by which I mean people who create it, people who view it, people who buy and sell it and the whole of the industry that makes the items that enable images to be made) ought to be more cohesive in their approach to sustaining and enabling the industry and the art of photography to survive. These are difficult times for photography in general. Even though there are more photographs then ever out there it is also harder than ever for people to actually make a living out of photography. Traditional manufacturers of cameras are under threat from smart phones and many could end up going the same way as Kodak as they are disrupted by the new image taking and making technologies. Surely now is the time for all these parties to come together to support the art form as a whole and to sustain it through the new and exciting times in which we find ourselves. Ultimately by supporting archives like the one owned by the Library of Birmingham and encouraging an all round interest in photography everyone wins. Some things that could be done are:

  • Corporate sponsorship of programs of events that help generate interest in photography as an art form (and yes that would help those sponsors sell more of their wares). For example all of the major camera manufacturers have marketing budgets to help generate interest in their products.
  • More paid for events (seminars, exhibitions, workshops, photography walkabouts etc) that maybe experienced photographers donate some of their time toward.
  • Renting out of space for photographic use (e.g. studio space and workrooms where photographers could gather together to work, exchange ideas and generally support each other).
  • Invite guest speakers from the photographic world who are ‘passing through’. Maybe they too could donate their time for free if they knew the money raised would be put to good use. As an example the annual Photography Show which runs in March has started to pull in some interesting guest speakers and big names in the photographic world. I’m sure some of them could be persuaded to also speak in central Birmingham if they were in town.

All of this may smack a little of commercialisation but that is the real world in which we live and looking for funding from multiple sources is the only real way forward if we are to sustain the great resources such as are available at the Library of Birmingham.

If you are concerned about what is happening at the library and the potential loss of access to the photographic archive then sign the petition organised by Paul Hill at change.org here and tell the council what you think here.

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