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Library of Birmingham: Thousands of books can't be reached by librarians

Staff unable to access reference books on high shelves in the archives due to health and safety concerns

Project director Brian Gambles surveys the Shakespeare Memorial Room
Library director Brian Gambles in the Shakespeare Memorial Room

 

Staff at the flagship £190 million Library Of Birmingham can’t access tens of thousands of books – because they can’t reach them.

Now, more than six months after the landmark facility was opened, it has been branded ‘unfit for purpose’.

Furious students, researchers and academics are unable to access reference books and old periodicals because the library has not bought equipment to reach high shelves.

Officials told the Birmingham Post that health and safety concerns meant staff were unable to retrieve items requested by visitors for fear of injury. The situation means that six months after the library opened many visitors are still unable to use it for its primary purpose.

The setback has been described as ‘farcical’, and one insider told the Birmingham Post that staff had been demoralised by dealing with angry visitors unable to carry out research.

It means that researchers and academics have been unable to access a wealth of material for more than 18 months, as many of the archives were closed off a year in advance for the library move.

Medieval historian George Demidowicz, of the University of Birmingham, described the situation as a ‘tragedy and a scandal’.

He said: “The library is great to gawp at, but it is unfit for purpose. This is what happens when you design a library which is not big enough and cut the staffing levels.

"They were warned this would happen. This is not the fault of staff whatsoever, they are struggling to maintain a basic service with a hugely reduced workforce.”

All the research books and old periodicals are kept in what is known as ‘the stack’ – storage areas with special containers which are closed to the public.

Mr Demidowicz said that the stack has been closed for 18 months and whole sections of art, literature, science and social science archives had been unavailable.

Architectural historian and former councillor Andy Foster said that waiting times of a week to get some other archive items are common – but anything held in ‘the stack’ was inaccessible.

“It used to take about half-an-hour – now it is a week. And the reference stack is still not open. For some of us this has been absolutely dreadful.

“We all feel pretty lousy about this.”

Another city university academic, who asked not to be named said: “The new Library of Birmingham is brilliant if you want to wander through and go up and have a look from the roof.

“But if you want to use it for the purpose it was intended then it is useless.

 

“We are having students who want to find research material, but they are being told the staff can’t find it. It seems like unless it is on the shelves around the library, then basically it has disappeared.”

The professor added: “In the first couple of months people could understand there were teething problems, but now it is more than six months since it opened last September.

“This should have all been sorted out by now and it is an absolutely farcical situation.”

One library worker told the Post: “We lost a lot of people who worked in the Central Library around the time of the transfer through voluntary redundancy and early retirement.

"We have got a lot of people now who are agency workers, and who don’t know how the old system worked. Staff are getting very demoralised because they can’t help people who come in.”

The creation of the new library was already controversial as the cash-strapped council has now been forced to axe four community libraries as part of a £2 million cuts package, which will also see reductions to opening hours.

The city’s ten cash-strapped council district committees have earmarked libraries at Aston, Spring Hill in Ladywood, West Heath and Wylde Green for closure. Staff have now put together a management buy-out proposal which is currently being considered by city leaders.

Brian Gambles, director of the Library of Birmingham, said: “We fully understand how popular materials in the closed stack areas of the Library of Birmingham are and it is frustrating that we haven’t yet been able to give our customers access to them.

“We had planned to introduce this service in the autumn, after the initial post-opening rush had settled a little, but because we’re still awaiting delivery of equipment to enable staff to retrieve items from the storage stacks safely, we have had to delay this service.

“We are in frequent contact with the suppliers to get a delivery date.

“We need mobile platform lift devices to enable safe working at heights. The contractor has not as yet supplied an option which satisfies all our requirements, so we are testing alternatives.”

Mr Gambles added: “I’d like to apologise to our customers and ask that they bear with us – we hope to have the service available later this spring.”

Mr Gambles was unable to say how many books and journals were currently unavailable.

 

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