Shelving of the books…

YESTERDAY this ledge-bound column considered swearing in literature. Today’s topic may well leave some readers with a profanity or two rising through their throat.

It was reported yesterday by the BBC that the Library of Birmingham is no longer buying new books or newspapers. Now a library without new books is not much of a library; and a hard-backed irony here is that when the library opened a couple of years or so ago, it cost £188 million. That would buy an awful lot of new books, but now they can no longer afford to put any new books on those shiny new shelves.

Photographs of the library show a modern building that glitters with civic confidence. And that is surely a good thing, even if it doesn’t come cheap. Proud cities should be able to build new and wonderful buildings for their citizens. Each generation should add something grand to a city, rather than solely relying on polishing up past glories.

Maybe that is easier to do in Birmingham than in York, where I live. Here the past is so splendidly prevalent that modern buildings struggle to find any non-sacred slot in which to plant their brash new feet.

Sadly, ever since that library opened in Birmingham, the city council has slashed opening hours, cut staff numbers and spent less on new books. And now they’re not going to spend anything on new books.

But never mind: the library service does have a plan. And here it is… a crumpled note reading: “BOOKS REQUIRED: Due to public savings cuts we are no longer purchasing any new books or newspapers. Therefore we’re looking for any books published in the last 12 months to be donated to the library. All gratefully received.”

I wish I could tell you that I had just made that last bit up. But no, that’s the real deal and not a bit of satirical play-acting.

The writer SJ Watson, author of Before I Go To Sleep, grew up in the area and was interviewed on the radio about this decision. He also took to Twitter, tweeting as follows: “Birmingham have built an amazing new library. But there’s a snag. This actually makes me really angry.” The ‘snag’ of course was the lack of new books, and his tweet featured a photograph of the pleading note mentioned above.

A councillor whose name need not detain us said lots of the usual things, and this: “We have always made choices about which books to buy, but clearly we need to be careful and buy those books that are most needed.”

Well that’s comforting, isn’t it? I assume there is a person with the relevant job title: the buyer of necessary books. I’d love to hear exactly what denotes a “needed book”. The wasteland between those books and all the unnecessary ones must be littered with wasted words.

We have to remember that this is what cuts look like. Not big or terrible, or not at first, but an incremental diminishment of things we need or value; a slow chipping away at the stone until nothing is left but discarded chippings. And often these cuts are decided centrally by Government, and delivered on the ground by hard-pushed local councils.

A swimming pool in West Yorkshire was recently featured on BBC Look North. Well, I call it a swimming pool but those usually have to contain water for the old buoyancy trick to work. This one was empty. But never mind, someone has just put up a note: “WATER REQUIRED: Due to public savings cuts we are no longer able to fill this pool with water. Therefore we’re looking for any old water you may have and are prepared to donate to the pool. All old bath-water gratefully received.”

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