All primary schoolchildren in Birmingham will be issued with library cards in a bid to improve literacy and encourage greater use of community services.
Councillors in Birmingham have unanimously voted for a Universal Library Card aimed at the 80,000 young children, about 45 per cent of the overall total, who currently do not borrow books.
A motion, put down by Liberal Democrat councillor Mike Ward found wide support and means that the council must draw up a detailed scheme – perhaps in time for the Birmingham Year of Reading starting in September.
But against the backdrop of support for the proposal was the spectre of cuts to the £21 million library services budget, which could see some of the city’s 39 community libraries either closed, moved into schools or other public buildings, their opening hours cut or handed on to community volunteers to run.
There were, amid praise for the scheme, calls for the professionalism of librarians to be respected and the Labour-run council to make a strong commitment to retain existing library services.
Coun Deirdre Alden (Cons, Edgbaston) suggested the scheme could be extended to secondary schoolchildren to ensure no child misses out.
She said: “However, it’s no good having a library card if you don’t have libraries where youngsters could use them. It is even more important when money is scarce that we spend the money we do have wisely.”
She warned councillors over introducing too many volunteers to run services. “The Labour council talks about getting rid of people who have paid jobs, librarians and park rangers. Chuck them on the dole and replace them with people who will do the job for free.
“Being a librarian is a proper profession. But librarians are rightly worried when they see Labour politicians putting round leaflets asking for volunteers to take their jobs.”
She urged politicians of all parties not to ‘undermine our librarians’ by suggesting they are replaced with unskilled volunteers. Labour councillors were quick to reply that the budget cuts were the result of austerity measures imposed by the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition Government.
Earlier in the city council meeting Labour deputy leader Ian Ward had said that even the Tory-led Local Government Association had concluded that if budget cuts continue at the current rate library services will be unaffordable by 2020. Even if spared from closure this year many libraries will be under threat again in 12 months’ time.
But his namesake, Liberal Democrat Mike Ward (Sheldon), said: “Against a backdrop of budget pressures the council has, to date, not closed any libraries. I certainly hope that will remain the situation for many years to come.”
He argued that a universal library card would not only increase use and improve the sustainability of libraries, but improve the lot of many children.
He revealed that 30 per cent of young people in Birmingham do not have books of their own and four in ten of those read ‘rarely’ or not at all.
“A universal library card for children under 11 will encourage them to use the services provided by their local library and develop their reading and literacy skills,” he said.
This view was backed by Labour councillor Martin Straker-Welds (Moseley and Kings Heath), an education expert, who said: “I believe we have a truly magnificent opportunity to provide a massive boost to children’s literacy across the city.
“Libraries play such an important role in stimulating children’s imagination and their enjoyment of reading. But libraries do so much more. They are learning hubs.
“They provide opportunities for research, learning and developing hobbies and interests, they are centres for storytelling, homework clubs and children’s writing circles. They promote learning communities and develop independent learners for the future.”
It also emerged that the newly-formed Birmingham Education Partnership, the association of schools and the city council’s education department, is planning a Year of Reading for the 2014-15 academic year to boost literacy rates in the city.