Willy Hutton’s just such a card

The TaxPayers’ Alliance will be fulminating. On Tuesday, Birmingham’s new library – a £189m tribute to modernity and already receiving great reviews – will open. The largest public building of its type in Europe, it is part of a daring plan to reinvent the centre of the city. But in the world inhabited by the TaxPayers’ Alliance, where all public initiative is futile, this must a priori be a useless waste of money.

The Library of Birmingham is a fabulous public space, less a library, more an attempt to create an open information hub for the city – surely the only future for libraries as they shudder before the twin impact of the digital revolution and the cruellest, fastest withdrawal of local public spending from any major industrialised country since 1945.

The digital revolution means that we don’t really have a future place for buildings called libraries. Therefore it’s wonderful that £189 million of the ratepayers’ money has been pissed away on one.

I’ve said before that the most co0nservative people in Britain are those on the left. And here it is again: we must still have libraries, even if we don’t need them, because we used to have libraries.

52 thoughts on “Willy Hutton’s just such a card”

  1. Having visited Brum city centre a few years ago I can’t see why it needs re-inventing let alone a “daring plan” to do so. Since they have spent so much on this they will prob take steps to keep dossers out in the cold, thus negating one of the traditional functions of the public library–giving dossers somewhere warm (in physical rather than emotional terms) to sit during the day.

  2. The thing is, Birmingham itself – entirely thanks to the excremental local council – is really horrible. Wazzing £200m just on a library is simply mentally deranged. The ongoing costs of running a library, if it is to remain relevant, are also huge, so other libraries outside the unpleasant city centre will have to close in order to feed this socialist showpiece.

  3. Um, it’s “receiving great reviews”, but hasn’t actually opened yet.
    It’s going to the one of those buildings that architecture fans drool over, but everyone realises 6 months later is utter garbage at doing what it was supposedly built for, isn’t it.

  4. Oh you neo-liberals! Richard Murphy explained it the other week: when we as individuals make decisions it’s because we’ve been duped by the evil advertising industry. By contrast Local Gov’t (and none more so than Birmingham) knows what you actually really do need. So trust your local gov’t.

    And did you not read Will’s piece? It’s not a library; it’s an OPEN INFORMATION HUB, which everybody needs!!

    So just stop it.

  5. This is about personality traits: hubris, vainglory.

    Spending otherpeople’s money is the easiest thing in the world. Doing it on this scale, on a scheme so futile, speaks very poorly for the personalities of the decision-makers. But rather like the windmills, I also see these grands projets as metaphorical latterday Norman castles: a deliberate signifier of imposition, reminding us who’s boss.

  6. Radicalism is generally just rebranded reactionaryism. Is that a word? It is now!

    The only actual “progressive” doctrine is liberalism (in which people freely choose to change, as they wish). Which is why the crypto-reactionaries hate it so much.

  7. “The digital revolution means that we don’t really have a future place for buildings called libraries. ”

    I’m not so sure you’re right there – apart from a demand for real books continuing for a long time, libraries offer a different search function from online: Randomness and happenstance, without algorithms pushing their various prejudices onto you.

  8. Think of it from Willy’s point of view. It’s a lovely public building. He likes lovely public buildings. He’s doing fine financially, so he doesn’t need to think too much about how this was paid for. From his point of view, it’s all gain.

  9. My local libraries in London are usually pretty well used but not by anyone borrowing books. They’re full of students doing homework and the unemployed/retired reading the newspaper.

    The reference library seems to be used occasionally for stuff not available on the Internet.

  10. What’s the solution to give parents access to a wide variety of enticing material to get their children reading? A £200 Kindle Fire for 100,000 children would cost £20m.

  11. and the cruellest, fastest withdrawal of local public spending from any major industrialised country since 1945.

    Aye, ‘cos the end of the Soviet Union is fuck all compared to Cameron’s imaginary cuts.

  12. And I doubt it can lend books for what I got some Hilary Mantel and Dorothy L Sayers books for (less than £3.50 each).

    It’s bizarre to have people taking physical items off shelves when as data it costs almost £0/book to store and move.

  13. I think that those people who’ve not been inside a modern library and therefore have no idea what they’re like and what they’re used for, should probably stop to think whether they’re commenting from a position of knowledge.

    It’s always ok to question whether spending £200m of other people’s money is a good idea.. but it’s best to know what it’s being spent on.

    I’ve spent time in some awesome public libraries. One in Amsterdam springs to mind specifically. A great resource, open to everyone, with loads of services and facilities and all sorts of people using them. If I was a wealthy philanthropist then I’d build amazing public libraries. If I was running Birmingham City Council and had serious financial problems to deal with, I might feel like doing something else.

  14. Philip Scott Thomas


    A great resource, open to everyone, with loads of services and facilities and all sorts of people using them.

    That’s what I find at the Lit & Phil. Annual membership costs me about the same as the telly tax.

    And the best parts of it are that membership is voluntary and that the benefits I derive cost the local taxpayers nothing at all.

  15. Do these people not understand that, today, access to information is increasingly de-centralized? The only use a library has, in the modern day, is if it holds a collection of rare books/research data for public use – and even then we’d be better served (and it’d be cheaper and a more robust system) simply to scan the text and place it online.

    What is it with this fetish for centralizing public services? Libraries, high-rise housing complexes, light rail mass transit – all stuff central planners love and all stuff that is at best obsolete and at worst most of the public absolutely hates.

  16. “Tim Almond

    September 1, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    It’s bizarre to have people taking physical items off shelves when as data it costs almost £0/book to store and move.”

    Not just that, think of the money wasted as time – time spent traveling to and from the library, time spent walking along shelves to get the physical book, time spent waiting for someone to bring back the limited number of physical copies so you can borrow one.

  17. Agammamon,

    “Not just that, think of the money wasted as time – time spent traveling to and from the library, time spent walking along shelves to get the physical book, time spent waiting for someone to bring back the limited number of physical copies so you can borrow one.”

    Which is why I never go to the library. I can get a book for my Kindle on my lunch break, on a bus, in the middle of France (I’ve done all 3).

    If I go to the library, I’ve got to go at their times (which aren’t that flexible), pay a couple of quid for parking, remember to take it back within the time. Even just for parking and fuel, it’s £3, at which point, I can pretty much OWN Wolf Hall or The Nine Tailors. Then there’s the Edith Wharton and Henry James novels that I’ve read that cost me £0 because they’re out of copyright.

  18. Shinsei1967

    WHAT?! There’s stuff not available on the Webs! That can’t be right, surely? I want my money back.


  19. I use the town centre library a fair bit – reference section usually has a couple of dozen people or more, a few on the computers with the rest browsing, reading, making notes etc. Good source of stuff, much of which is NOT online.
    Library also does poetry readings (rarely attend but listen in if near to the section they are using if I’m around). Craft events are popular, wife has learnt a number of new crafts – and encourages people to use the craft books in the library. And many books in the library are not available online or as ebooks.
    Won’t use Brum library, the library can be a valuable resource for people. Whats the alternitive? People spending billions on books themselves?

  20. Spare athouht for the aged arthritic pensioner. Reading books is the sole pleasure of life. Kindles and the like cost money. They will die soon enough- so be a bit charitable.

  21. Spare athouht for the aged arthritic pensioner. Reading books is the sole pleasure of life.

    Kindles cost 69 pounds for the basic model from Amazon UK, which is less than I’ve paid for some books in the last few years. And aged pensioners were among the earliest adopters of e-books from the local library, because they can adjust font size at the press of a button, so they aren’t restricted to the large print books any more.

  22. I’m far from convinced that the official line of the TPA is “all public initiative is futile”. In fact I’m pretty sure that that’s just a rather silly false dichotomy.

  23. Is this question about libraries or is it about buildings?

    So libraries contain lots of really great books that pensioners and poor people can read without shelling out for a Kindle. Well great, but why do books need expensive new buidings for them? The old library might be a perfect example of disgusting brutalist architecture, but was it broken? And was it broken so badly it needed £189 million to fix it with a new one? And should we be able to cite the apocryphal hard-up pensioner if he and every other citizen of Birmingham could have been bought a Kindle Fire for less than this shiny new building cost?

  24. Ironman it’s a mistake to suppose this is about libraries or buildings, education or reading, pensioners or dossers.

    This building exists for one reason only: to make the people who decided to have it built feel good about themselves.

  25. There is no “public money” unless the public gave it willingly and without any threat of violent coercion should they not “contribute”. All so-called “public initiative” is thievery and violent coercion–however psuedo lofty and noble the thieves and thugs of the public sector judge their plans to be. Until that is understood (and it must be understood en masse) there will be no remedy for this country and the West’s terminal decline.

  26. Was the old building fit for purpose?
    All well and good rewiring, adding equipment and so on, but was the building itself fit for the modern day? Or was it rather old, not great for disabled access, space available was limited in how it could be used?
    If I remember correctly commercial buildings can have a limited useful life as they become less fit for purpose, needing upgrades or major changes, even knocking down and rebuilding. Measured in decades – is a library not itself a commercial building merely providing book hire for free?

  27. Jeremy Poynton,

    And bollocks to those many many people who can’t read off screens eh Tim?

    Have you used a Kindle (not the Fire, the reader)? It’s not really a “screen”. It’s a load of little ink-coated balls that are either black or white and flip as you change page. Personally, I prefer reading the Kindle to reading a book. The Paperwhite is even better.

  28. Martin Davies

    Excellent, what better justification for a £187 million spend could there possibly be! Especially when the need, THE NEED, is so glaring.

    Or is it possibly that a new building is nothing more than a shiny new bauble for socialists to gaze at in awe?

  29. @ Martin Davies

    Was the old building fit for purpose?
    All well and good rewiring, adding equipment and so on, but was the building itself fit for the modern day?

    I was saying much the same myself the other day, as I gazed upon the Palace of Westminster.

  30. In Willy’s world it would be twice as good if it had cost twice as much. It’s success is measured on the immensity of the public expenditure.

    He would have died of rapture over the Pyramids if he had lived then.

  31. Why always this “aged arthritic pensioner” who is a technophobe. It’s not like they are still the same pensioners from the 60s. Current pensioners were likely to have been working with computers before they retired. Same with loads of other tech such as CDs, DVDs, microwaves, etc. You do realize that computers have been around for more than 30 years now. The pensioners I know are the ones using their computers the most. They might not be on the bleeding age with twitter et al, but they are pretty up with it on hi-tech.

  32. SBML,

    And even some people older than that, and who never worked with a computer are perfectly capable, and that’s because we simplified the interface to what consumers wanted. I’ve not met anyone who isn’t capable of buying shopping or booking flights within a few days of using a browser (and using iPads and Kindles is even simpler).

    Building IKEA furniture is more complex than most of this sort of computing.

  33. To be fair, Rob, the pyramids are utterly astonishing. Have to be seen to be believed. You can go cheap now, too.


    My father-in-law, a retired engineer, is far more techy than me.

    My dad – not yet 70 but fairly reactionary and dinosaurish – recently renewed his house insurance online fr the first time a week or two back.

  34. Major issue I have with the new building (other than the large golden toilet roll on top – but it does have the advantage of looking better than the drawings they had showing what it would look like, which is fortunate…) is that to fund it they have cut funding to local libraries. Whether we need these or not is uncertain, but they have more footfall (combined) than the central library, which makes the decision to fund this interesting.

    I would suggest that maintaining the existing building would not really be a viable idea – it’s a wonderful example of why the sixties and seventies should not have been allowed, and is apparently so badly designed that they have no flexibility with space and storage. Plus it’s ugly as hell, even by modern standards.

    There are a couple of vital functions the main library does and will offer – it’s the Birmingham record office and has an excellent research section on local history (with knowledgable staff – something you can’t get online). It also does offer a range of activities for people which may or may not be needed (my view is they would be better done at the local libraries, as not many people actually live around the centre for some reason – shops and offices (and lovely concrete wasteland – albeit this is now disappearing) take up the space).

    Biggest problem I can see is that the cozy arrangements at the top of the council mean none of the four parties involved seemed to suggest we shouldn’t spend this money, which means democratic legitimacy was a problem.

  35. The thing is only the needs of one group of people are ever considered when this sort of project is mooted, and that group is definitely NOT the potential users of the service. It is instead (of course) those that are currently in charge of the existing service, and the staff therein. Its just your common or garden producer capture that is the public sector. The ‘needs’ of the employees are paramount – the people who might need/use the service are irrelevant to the decision, as are the poor taxpayers.

    The very concept that it might have been better for the reading public in Birmingham to be given a free Kindle, and even an annual amount to spend on ebooks, and that this would still be cheaper than a new library and the ongoing upkeep thereof, is utterly off the radar as far as the decision makers are concerned.

    I mean, what would happen to all the people working in the library, and pulling nice middle class salaries ‘managing’ it?

  36. Doesn’t this library fit into the same category as HS2 and much other government spending? It’s a sane idea with an insane pricetag ten times higher than it should be. £19 per head for a new main library for the country’s second-largest city doesn’t seem unreasonable. £190 per head does, of course.

  37. Rob – it depends on what they were used for, what they provided, whose money it was, how much other money they had, what other applications of that money they were passing up etc.

    Given that it was the ancient Phroahs and they had an almost inexhaustible supply of slave labour (money), I don’t think I agree with you, though I wouldn’t fight to the death over it.

  38. Call it £200 million for the new library. That’s the Present Value of a ten million quid a year spend in perpetuity. Even if, arguendo, spending this sort of money on ‘information hubs’ and whathaveyou is a good idea, wouldn’t it have been better directed at an aggressive effort to digitise and make available those works which are not currently available online? Of course, if a government IT project were started to do this it would be a fucking disaster, but subcontracting it to people like Google who know what they’re doing would almost certainly work.

    As an aside, probably the greatest boost to dispersing information to the general public would be to limit copyright periods to, say, fifteen years after publication and make the rights non-transferable (so no raking it in for decades after the author’s death.)

  39. Remember the rejoicing which greeted the advent of the paperless office? Like fuck! And we don’t need art galleries any more folks – you can get any painting as a reproduction! Paintings are the past! Paper is the past! Like fuck!

    Note to GB above: the centre of Birmingham isn’t Birmingham.

  40. @ SadButMadLad & Tim Almond
    I was a trainee computer programmer in 1963-6, so not obviously a technophobe, I do not restrict myself to the HSE guidelines of a maximum 20 minutes using a screen or keyboard between breaks but I prefer to read physical books to trying to read a whole book on screen. So I value my local library (which I always visit on foot – except for once in the ’60s when I used the bus to visit the reference library in the neighbouring town and the City of London libraries which I occasionally drop into when I am in town).
    David Gillies makes the case much better

  41. My local library lends e-books. So far, so good, except that the library has a pathetically small “supply” of the things. The majority of books are still not published in electronic format, never mind the existing stock of books.

    Yes, you read that right. There’s an artificial limit on the number of “copies” of an ebook that the library holds, because the library has bought a license to lend say 2 or 3 simultaneous copies and no more.

    Given that I have a 9-year-old who is a bookworm, I practically visit out local library with a wheelbarrow. Last time I checked, I was assisting the library by storing 75 of its books in my house.

    I own a Kindle, a tablet, and some computers, and I’ve read books on them all, but given the preference I will always sit in an armchair with a cup of tea and a physical paper book.

    The Kindle wins for travelling, because books are heavy, and the tablet wins for reading in the dark, but in most cases real books still win.

  42. I bought an e-reader a couple of years ago, tried it a few times, and put it in the drawer. Haven’t looked at it since. A book is an artifact, a solid, real thing with a history, an ambience, a smell. I love the texture of good paper, the binding, the rustle of turning pages, taking a book off the shelf. There’s no comparison with a real book.
    But isn’t a love of gizmos a libertarian personality trait?

  43. @ Tim Almond
    A kindle is even smaller and is a screen which generates eyestrain and headaches even if it’s not LCD (nor is my computer screen).
    No, I neither know nor care how e-ink works

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