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Sonntag geschlossen, Dimanche fermeture – if you’re a European city library, you close on Sundays

Sonntag geschlossen, Dimanche fermeture – if you’re a European city library, you close on Sundays

🕔21.Jun 2015

“You’re pretty sexy when you get angry” has become a modern-day cliché – one I suspect women find particularly irritating. Certainly one of its first airings, though, was between the Judd Nelson (John) and Emilio Estevez (Andy) characters in surely still the best US ‘coming of age’ comedy, the 1980s’ The Breakfast Club.

Whatever, as they’d say – I was reminded of it by Paul Dale’s impassioned attack earlier this week on city council leader, Sir Albert Bore, and his “cheese-paring” administration for slashing the Library of Birmingham’s opening hours and staffing levels, writes Chris Game.

Indeed, so angry (and sexy) was he that he uncharacteristically bypassed his fact-checker, as was noted in at least one of the pleasingly large number of responses his blog post attracted.

The slightly compressed core of Paul’s argument on opening hours was that:

The library does not open until 11am during weekdays and Saturdays, closes at 7pm on Mondays and Tuesdays and at 5pm Wednesday to Saturday. It is closed on Sundays. Over the weekend, therefore, one of the best libraries anywhere in Europe is open for just six hours.

Cities like Frankfurt and Zurich do not have grand civic libraries that open for only half a week, nor do other major European cities. Here in Birmingham on any day of the week it is possible to see scores of people queuing up to get into the library, waiting patiently for the doors to open at 11am as if they are in some shabby east European city circa 1974.

On Sundays, visitors continue to arrive in significant numbers expecting the building to be open. Some are from abroad and have come to see the best of what Birmingham has to offer. They are sorely disappointed.

I’ll start with that last point first. If Sunday visitors from abroad really are disappointed, it can only be because they made the trip (a) without checking opening hours first, and (b) expressly to see about the only big, non-capital city public library in Europe that until recently DID open on Sundays.

Big European city public libraries simply don’t open on Sundays, and not just, as ‘dazwright’ noted in his response to Paul’s blog, Frankfurt and Zurich – the latter of which, incidentally, also doubles as the university’s library and so might be thought to have an additional reason to open.

It’s true too of Munich, Cologne (which also closes Mondays), Milan, Naples, Barcelona, Madrid (Spain’s National Library, closed on all summer Saturdays too) and Vienna, architecturally perhaps Birmingham’s fiercest 21st Century competition within Europe – in fact, anywhere I could be bothered to try.

Yes, Scandinavia too. Stockholm starts its friendly English-translated Customer Services web page with the exciting: “Did you know the library is always open?” – but of course they mean online. Try visiting Sundays, and it’s as closed as all the rest – Copenhagen, Oslo, Bergen.

But what about Manchester, you ask. Surely it must be a Powerhouse condition that the rightly famous Manchester Central – its portico-columned rotunda now revamped (albeit for a mere £50 million) – opens on the Sabbath? Well, apparently not.

In fact, the one Sunday-opening biggish city library I was able to find on my admittedly pretty haphazard search is Leeds Central, which I happen to have visited. It’s an almost precise contemporary of the Birmingham Council House, just as imposing, and indeed started life as the administrative home of the borough council.

Which brings us back to Paul’s attack on our own evaporating opening hours. On weekday hours – 11 to either 7 or 5 – he’s on somewhat stronger ground, though not as it happens in using Frankfurt, where they also get up late, open at 11, and close at 7 on weekdays, 4 on Saturdays.

Continental opening times vary considerably, but are generally not later than 10. Closing times for what aren’t also university or national libraries average around 8, but rarely extend to beyond 8.30.

As for the Library of Birmingham’s being open “for just six hours over the weekend”, it would seem, if anything, to be fractionally over the European average – based, to reiterate, wholly on Saturdays.

Let me be clear. None of this is should be taken to suggest that I seriously disagree with Paul’s basic assertion that the “drastically reduced opening hours” policy, both in itself and particularly in its delayed emergence and implementation, amounts to “a serious strategic mistake” on the part of the present council leadership.

It’s just that European libraries generally, with their very different histories and professional traditions from ours, are not known for their Stakhanovite opening hours. Those particular illustrations, therefore, which sounded wrong when I read them, proved at least to an extent to be so on investigation.

It does appear, though, that Paul has somewhat hardened his views over the few months since his excellent blog on the whole 14-year central library saga shortly before Christmas.

Back in December, the now unqualifiedly “stunning Centenary Square building … one of the best libraries anywhere in Europe” had been punctuated with ironic quotation marks: a ‘world class’ designed building with “its ‘iconic’ to some, bizarre to others, brass bedstead exterior cladding”.

Then, the running costs were “a staggering £22 million a year, including £1 million a month in debt repayment”, and “incredibly, 188 people are employed at the library”.

Now, it’s “So what? No reasonable person would conclude that, just because it costs twice as much to run and pay for a library than to fund economic development, then the library should suffer”.

Yes, more than six months have elapsed, and, as John Maynard Keynes famously claimed, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” I’m just not sure in this case that the facts have changed that much.

I am sure, though, that no campaign, including those to save our libraries, does either itself or our city any favours by misinterpreting facts or using them loosely.

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