Library of Birmingham photography collections under urgent and pressing threat.
If you look at the date of today’s post (22 December 2014), you will see that I’d rather be with my family, winding down and gearing up for Christmas. But I can’t. On this occasion, I don’t think it possible to stay silent.
I am not an articulately Political person (cap P). I’m intrigued by photography, and have been for years. I believe in the importance of photography and the genius of some of the people who have made it important. I don’t 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 about to get it horribly, disgracefully, and damagingly wrong.
‘They’ are threatening to close down the whole of the photographic service at the Library of Birmingham, in the name of ‘cuts’.
It’s by no means the only library service under threat, but it may be the one with the greatest claim to international standing, leave alone its vital importance nationally and locally.
We can argue about where the centre of British photography lies. At one time you could make a plausible argument that if you waited in one of the great commercial darkrooms – Downtown Darkroom or Metro or Joe’s Basement (or, years before that, Bert Hardy’s place) – in London, everybody that mattered in British photography would sooner or later pass you. Commercial photography isn’t exciting any more, a new country of the blind. Vogue was incredible for years, a place where photography not only mattered but was the mainspring of a large industry which simply made no sense without images. The Sunday Times, Picture Post, Side Gallery in Newcastle, a degree course at Farnham or at Newport, the RAF or the Army, Guildford School of Art…even Flat 4, Porchester Court, Porchester Gardens…. All of these could at one time have justified a serious claim to being the home of something vibrant and vital to the national culture, either the cutting edge of photography, or the place where that edge was honed and whetted the better to cut a few years later.
Some years ago, it began to be clear that the great libraries were moving up as major repositories of the national collections in photography. The V&A has been a photographic hub for years; it was so in the nineteenth century. The Science Museum has struggled to make sense of its offshoot in Bradford, the National Media Museum, but its contribution has been important. The Museum of London, the National Monuments Record, the Imperial War Museum, even the National Trust which is constitutionally apart… these are huge public repositories that we knew about and that we expected to serve the national provision of ‘coverage’ in photography.
With hindsight, it’s obvious that the great libraries were among them. Photography was gathered and held as much in books as it was in prints. But it took incredibly arduous work (underfunded from the beginning, that goes without saying) by a very small group of curators and their tiny staff teams, to bring the libraries into position. It happened first elsewhere: the New York Public Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and numbers of others have been doing sterling work for years. The early problem was simple. Great photographs were not filed under Photography. They were filed under Industry or Local History or Biography or Science or Anthropology or Military Records or wherever they were. Photography was not a subject until very recently. It was a meta-subject, if you like, a tool or a method which could be (and had been) applied equally to every single thing in the catalogues of major libraries.
Men like John Falconer, of the British Library, or Richard Ovenden, of the Bodleian, have had to work wonders to persuade their funders that photography was a field in its own right. To put funds into photography was a huge risk. It meant opening the library to non-academics. More than that: photography being what it is, it even meant opening the library (in theory at least) to non-readers, or people not good at reading. Photography is transcultural and transnational and has no priesthood. It can be understood by anybody with eyes to see. It fits into our public library system better than anything. If libraries were to be inclusive and accessible and open to those with less favoured backgrounds or less good English – and make no mistake, those for thirty years have been the very things we have asked that our libraries should be, far more than that they should have complete sets of H.C. Robbins-Landon on Haydn or illustrated copies of the Idylls of the King by Tennyson – then photography was the great key which would open all those doors.
The person who for twenty years or more believed in that, and proved it and has worked tirelessly to shift it from a marginal proposition about incremental gains (in bums on seats, in marketing messages, in modulations of political arguments…) into a key central component of the best public library systems in the country, is Peter James of the Birmingham Central Library, now the Library of Birmingham.
For years, James was not even the curator of photographs at his library. He was nominally engaged – you can hear the hypocrisy, the weaselly civil-servant-speak, even if you were never there – in a long research project to see if perhaps one day appointing a curator of photography might conceivably be justified. In plain terms, he was working his nuts off without tenure. James, like Falconer at the British Library, had to make sure every year that the money to fund his own position was in place before there was any money to do the things he needed to do. Those not used to such rhythms can have no idea of the precarity, the fragility, that they impose. Those who wait nervously only to find quite how much bonus they will get at year end have never sweated like those who have to pay for their own post, year after year.
In spite of all that, Peter James built a department that grew from local importance to national to international. The collections of the Library of Birmingham are not only world-class in their holdings (and nobody had any idea they were anything like so important until Peter James showed them to be so), but they are world-class in the way they are handled. Photography has become the best loved and perhaps the most important of all the outreach elements of the Library. James works on the history of his archive, on contemporary displays, on regional ‘boosting’ and tirelessly on the practical daily grind of access and availability. His department links locally and nationally and internationally, too. Universities connect with the programme there, and so do schoolchildren. It is quite arguable that the Library of Birmingham is in fact now the very centre of British photography.
The work it took for that to be so is about to be smashed, and it’s wrong.
It seems only moments ago that the opening of the fancy new Library building was being touted as a symbol of Birmingham’s commitment to culture. It was a moment ago: the new building, all £189m of it, was opened late in 2013 by Malala Yousafszai, totem of belief in education (particularly for women) after she was shot in the head by the Taliban for championing women’s rights and brought back to health in Birmingham hospitals.
That great new public library has had all sorts of flags waved about it; photography has been one of them. The Museums, Libraries, and Archives Council (itself, not coincidentally, cut to death) awarded the photography collections at Birmingham the rare and special status of ‘designated’ collections. I’m not sure, but I don’t think any designated collection has ever been threatened with 100% cuts before. A host of funders, years before the new library opened, have raised money on the assumption (and, I suspect, on the contractual guarantee) that works purchased would be available to be seen by the public. How are they to react to the news that those pictures will now be locked into drawers, hidden, inaccessible, and neither circulating as they were intended to circulate nor preserved as they were intended to be preserved?
It is one shameful thing to say a wealth of professional expertise is going to be thrown away. It is quite another to say that if the photography department of the Library of Birmingham is mothballed, then a number of fancy donors will in effect have been lied to. The donors should know that, and react to it.
What will happen to the conservation of old and fragile photographic documents? It won’t take long before those are damaged beyond repair.
Who will organise careful exhibitions of photography from earlier periods in the West Midlands, scrupulously attuned to the understanding and the needs of the public of today? It won’t be long before that becomes a whole forgotten swathe of our past, and access to it denied to those who might most use it in their own work going forward.
Not many weeks ago, I was at the Library attending a meeting chaired by Peter James. He had been unwell, yet he was working extra for a cause that went far beyond his own institution and might (if seen through) benefit a loose notion of ‘British photography as a whole’. James has brought into being a really effective library department in Birmingham. But he’s done more than that, too. His library is now a veritable hub, a meeting-point in the very centre of the country, where all photographic tendencies and all photographic habits have a chance of interacting and of being honoured.
While I was there, somebody said that £189m was the same as the cost of the latest release of Call of Duty. I haven’t looked it up, but it seems plausible. Which would you rather have?
Culture is cheap. The Department of Culture Media and Sport has been a useless department of state since it was headed by Chris Smith, who (at the very least) cared deeply about cultural activity and was himself formed by it. Has the DCMS ever fought hard for anything? Now is the time. If it’s perfectly all right for photography effectively to cease being a care of the Library of Birmingham, then we go back forty, fifty years without a blink. It’s a disaster. It’s also entirely avoidable. Culture costs relatively nothing, and its contribution is relatively huge. Take that equation out of the hands of accountants and put it in the hands even of the spinners who need to fight the next election and it becomes a very powerful argument.
It’s routinely said that Conservatives actively dislike public libraries because they don’t use them. I used to disparage such remarks: the idea that Conservatives retreated to Daddy’s panelled rooms where bound editions of the classics gently suffused the air in front of the log fire with odour of Morocco binding and Clarendon ink seemed grotesque, a caricature. It isn’t. It’s true, after all.
This attack on the Library of Birmingham is an attack on the very idea of self-improvement. The classically Tory possibility that anyone can better herself – with a minimum of help from the state – itself is attacked by it. I said earlier, I’m no politician. But if that’s Tory policy, then the barbarians’ time is up. Restore sensible funding, or be thrown out. You don’t burn books, even photographic books, and still claim to be civil.
Peter James cannot orchestrate the response to these proposed cuts. To do so might imperil his own contractual position in the case of redundancy. And that, it seems to me, is an obscenity of its own.
What follows is the text of a message to ‘stakeholders’ from Brian Gambles, Assistant Director – Culture, Birmingham Library and Archive Services, who was the head of the Library of Birmingham project. He should have sent it you, and you, and you. We’re all ‘stakeholders’ in our major photographic institutions. Note the expression: “ Archive services … will cease. “ It’s not a partial message or a hint or a negotiating ploy. It’s everything.
The closing date for representations is 12th January 2015. You haven’t got time to do nothing. Take up the invitations below, where a number of contact addresses are given. React by whichever channel you choose, but react.
Library of Birmingham Budget Consultation
In line with other City Council services, the Library of Birmingham has to find significant budget savings for 2015/16.
Our proposals to achieve these savings are part of the City Council’s budget consultation, and are set out below.
- 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 externally funded.
- Business support, learning, children’s, reading, music and archive services other than counter transactions will cease, except where external funding can be identified.
- Outreach and community engagement work will cease, except where external funding can be identified.
- The budget to buy new books will be further reduced.
Have your say
The City Council wants to know what you think about these proposals.
The best way to have your say is by completing the online survey.
You could also:
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Text ‘Budget’ followed by a space and your message to 07786 200 403
- Write to Budget Views, Room 221, Council House, Victoria Square, Birmingham B1 1BB
- Post your comment on the Birmingham Speaks forum: –