Another subject I now reprise – this time with dismay – is that of the Library of Birmingham, which I wrote about so ecstatically a few months ago. The library, though less than two years old and built as a showpiece, now faces severe service reductions: according to a report in CILIP Update in February opening hours are to be cut from 70 hours a week to 40 and more than half the staff are likely to lose their jobs. The report quotes Councillor Penny Holbrook, Birmingham City Council’s cabinet member for skills, learning and culture, as saying: “It must also be remembered that the library was commissioned by the council’s previous administration, and it has been well documented that the decision to proceed with the project was taken a matter of weeks before the global financial crisis which has triggered the period of austerity the council now faces.”
I have two strong objections to this. One is that in times when book buying is less easy to afford book borrowing comes into its own. But more important is that it is literature, learning and the arts which show us that life is richer, profounder and more surprising than we sometimes suppose. When material prosperity is harder to come by, we have an especial need of these more durable qualities. That is why the means of providing them – and the provision is remarkably cheap – ought to be one of the first things we protect against economic ravages.