I just completed one of those consultation questionnaires you get from local government which probably won’t have any real effect on the outcome, but it did have the unexpected effect of forcing me to think a bit more about my position on something I hadn’t really considered in any depth. It’s about the future of libraries in Birmingham, something I’d kinda ambivalent about because I hardly ever use the local library service.
Why would I? I have a house with space and quiet to work in. I have a decent internet connection and enough experience to navigate the internet itself to get information. And I have sufficient income to purchase the books I need (and if I can’t afford them, that internet experience comes in handy there too…). Filling in that survey I felt like a bit of a fraud when I said I probably used the library one or more times a year, if that. What right did I have to comment?
But when I was kid in Croydon I pretty much lived in the central library (before I lived in the comic shop, but that’s another story). While we weren’t poor-poor, we weren’t exactly rich, so access to ALL THE TINTIN BOOKS was amazing. But it was the reference library that really did it. This cathedral of a building had a dramatic effect on me, possibly because it told me that knowledge, and the application of that knowledge, was important.
And while I am a very active internet user, I’m under no illusions about our current crop of internet services being able to supply society with knowledge. Wikipedia is great, but it’s a monopoly and the exception while Archive.org is hampered by copyright laws. Meanwhile the commercial sector has completely lost the plot with Google’s search getting worse and worse in the face of weaponised SEO. It’s frightening how hard it is to get proper information now.
So I know the value of libraries, even if I don’t use them that much.
But as I was answering the questions in that consultation I realised this isn’t about libraries. It’s about the city we want to live in. And the idea of a city that we maybe had a decade ago is not going to exist soon. The problem is, with these piecemeal proposed changes, we might not notice until it’s too late, if it’s not too late already.
I understand the desire to reduce a service rather than close it completely, but this does more harm than good. The reduced service becomes normalised and then it can be reduced again, until there’s nothing left. And a reduced service by definition is used less, because it’s available less, so its relevance to the community goes down and cutting it further doesn’t feel so bad.
I also understand why these sorts of services are being cut. Birmingham is, if I might use reasoned, cautious language, fucked up the wazzoo. Thanks to central government cuts and losing a massively bungled wage dispute, Birmingham will not recover. What we’re seeing now is just a prelude - it hasn’t started yet. Properly vulnerable people are being left stranded.
Which makes worrying about libraries feel a little selfish, because there genuinely isn’t enough money to around. If you have to choose between homeless children and library opening hours, it’s a no brainer. Shut the fucking libraries. Shut them now.
This is why these surveys make me so angry. They accept that this choice is acceptable and reasonable. They normalise this erosion of civic infrastructure so it can continue.
The only answer is to building up the finances available to Birmingham so that it doesn’t have to make that choice. Because it’s a false choice. All the “soft” services offered by a city council are the sort of things that keep rehoused families in houses, keep troubled kids from crime, keep the employed in employment. They keep the city civilised. Without them we’re just a collection of houses and streets.
I feel like a radical absolutist faced with reasonable people, but I do honestly believe there isn’t anything to be reasonable about here. If we want Birmingham to be a great city we need to pay for it through taxation. That is how it works. And if you want that you need to make a solid argument that the price of civilisation is worth paying, because by raising those at the bottom up - all of them, not just those we deem “deserving” - we raise ourselves up.
I don’t want to see libraries closed, but I’d rather see them all closed than this piecemeal bollocks. Shut everything down now and then present us with a bill for opening it all up again properly. Because if we keep going like this it’ll all be shut down anyway in the end.