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Library service in a cold climate

Source: Public Sector Executive Jan/Feb 2012

Sarah Bartlett talks to Brian Gambles, chief executive of the Library of Birmingham Development Trust, about innovation during a time of financial pressure.

Visitors to Birmingham’s Christmas Market at the end of 2011 were stunned at the beautiful new library emerging in the heart of the city. At a time of high-profile clashes between cash-strapped councils and pro-library campaigners, Birmingham is investing in a £188.8m new library, opening in 2013 and set to be one of the most significant public libraries in the world. At a two-day European conference taking place in Birmingham at the end of February, Brian Gambles, chief executive of the Library of Birmingham Development Trust, will make a keynote contribution with his vision of library services in a cold climate.

Collaboration at every level

Partnership is a cornerstone of the new library building and the services it will house. It is fitting, therefore, that Gambles will be joined on the podium by Francine Houben, creative director and founder of Mecanoo Architecten, the designer of the building.

“We deliberately appointed an architect who would partner closely with us to create the design, and engage in a working dialogue about the building we needed”, said Gambles. “Above all, we wanted community engagement to be pivotal in a library that blends into the public space around it. I think Mecanoo have achieved that.”

The design moves the library away from a transactional model dominated by books, and instead reflects the idea of a learning journey. This experiential approach will be underwritten by collaboration at every level. There are around 40 organisations – mainly universities, colleges and cultural bodies – with which Gambles and his team will seek formal partnerships. But the library will not truly take shape until the community moves in.

Gambles explained: “There are thousands of informal community organisations, and the library must signal clearly that it is hospitable to their input.”

Reinventing the library

The public library service must continue to reinvent itself in order to survive, bringing people together, creating opportunities to share knowledge and experiences, using books and other library resources to lubricate learning.

“To meet government agendas and challenges in local communities, we must focus on the library as a space within the community”, Gambles said. He is shifting the focus away from books and information as key products of the library service, redirecting staff attention towards literacy, learning and community engagement.

He also envisages a space where community organisations can meet and run planned or impromptu events. Gambles is adamant that the future is not about the library’s staff running activities such as book clubs.

He said: “If a local history group or a local knitting circle wishes to congregate there, that’s fine, but the library isn’t going to run it. To my mind, that’s where active citizenship and volunteering should play a meaningful role.”

Gambles also believes that for the foreseeable future, we will live in a hybrid world that spans printed and electronic information. During Christmas week of 2011, Birmingham Central Library – not the new building – was full to capacity, and at one point ran out of seating. Over the same period, more than one billion apps were downloaded onto mobile devices worldwide. 1

The library’s backers appreciate that we are at a cultural crossroads. Gambles continued: “It’s relatively easy to convince people that what I’m offering is not a finished proposition, but instead an opportunity to buy into an exciting vision. I make it clear that they can influence the shape of that vision if they get involved. So when people ask about the services of the library, I can throw the question back, and say ‘what do you think it should be?’”

The team has strategies in place for a broad range of self-funding channels – corporate sponsorship, commercial activity (retail, catering and online services) and philanthropic fundraising. Income generation across the library service is currently below 10% of net budget, and Gambles will need to treble that figure, but that will not absolve the role of the public purse. The library remains a statutory service, and cannot charge for core transactional services such as book-lending; it can only play at the edges of income generation.

Those thinking about the next wave of citymaking appreciate the intangible benefits of the new library. Gambles said: “We have a great opportunity to define the city by its cultural assets. We are positioning the library as an instrument for enhanced quality of life, and that is a shrewd move.”

This is clearly part of a broader international trend. When Gambles carried out desk research at the start of the project, he discovered a significant number of new city-centre library buildings elsewhere in Europe. “While the world debates the possible demise of public libraries, that’s quite heartening”, he said.

Birmingham City Council retains its statutory responsibility to provide a library service, and ownership of the new building and its assets will remain with the council. However, Gambles and his team must re-engineer their relationship with the local authority. It became clear from early conversations with potential funders that some degree of separation would be needed – donations and grants could not be awarded to a local authority. As the Library of Birmingham Development Trust prepares to move into operational mode, options for governance must be appraised.

Gambles said: “We could opt for a wider cultural trust for the city. Alternatively, we could set up an operational trust which is separate from the development trust, or we could grow the development trust into an operational trust. The trust, either under a contractual or a grant-based regime, will run the library, freed up from some of the administrative burden of local government, and enjoying the benefits of charitable status. Within the council, we will retain a client lead for the library, with responsibility for the relationship between the two organisations.”

Looking ahead

What can other cities learn from these developments? Gambles is acutely aware that a £188.8m flagship building in the centre of the country’s second largest city might not seem immediately relevant to other authorities, particularly in the current economic climate.

“But even if it is difficult to replicate elsewhere”, argued Gambles, “it’s a strong affirmation that the library as an institution remains important in 21st century society. The city is getting behind the library.

“Its transformative potential is understood.

This is as true of the business community as it is of academia. And that’s powerful.” He concluded: “The huge challenge now is that the library is about growth, ambition, aspiration and opportunity. Yet the present service is managing contraction, and that’s the underlying reality. Trying to keep the two playing together isn’t easy, but Birmingham is demographically the youngest city in Europe, and young people now, more than ever, need encouragement to innovate and create. The library can fulfil that vital role, but only by forming the right relationships.”

Brian Gambles will be speaking in the opening session of a two-day event, Developing a New Blend of Library, organised by OCLC, a non-profit library technology organisation, in Birmingham on 28-29 February 2012. Sharing the floor with Francine Houben, he will discuss how best to blend physical space with online services in today’s climate of austerity.

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