In autumn 2016, Birmingham City Council threatened to close down Sutton Coldfield library. They were desperate to cut costs because their funding had been savagely cut by central government. Sutton library was identified as a target.
I soon discovered that one of the main issues was that the costings considered by the council were flawed. Birmingham City Council owns the whole building in which the library is based. The library itself does not take up the whole building, however. There were vacant floors in the building which were not used by the library. The council could and should have let those floors out, which it is now doing, but it hadn’t done that. Instead, it treated the costs of the whole building as if they were costs of the library. As a result, it looked as if the cost of the library was significantly higher than the costs of other libraries. Even though it was relatively well used, it looked as if it was so expensive that it seemed like good target for cost cutting.
When I found out about the planned closure, I initiated a campaign. At first, I organised a petition and set up a “Save the Library” group on Facebook. This swiftly evolved into a community campaign, as I connected with other residents who shared my passion. We started a group called “The Library Lobby”, and we took action against the planned closure. That included the first ever protest in Sutton town centre and engaging local people to sign petitions. We generated local interest, with coverage in the Sutton Observer. To move things forward practically, we spoke to Birmingham City Council and Sutton Coldfield Town Council to see what could be done. We persuaded both councils to work together and to put funding in place.
With Birmingham City Council looking at how to generate additional footfall and funding, we developed the idea of setting up a play café in the library. We knew that, since BHS had closed, there was nowhere for families with young children to go in Sutton. Our idea was that the café would help the library to become not just somewhere to get books but a place for children and families in the heart of the local community.
With our focus on recognising the value of the library as a community hub, we were keen to facilitate events in the library to draw people in and allow it to thrive in the heart of our community. With this view, we have set up a charity, FOLIO Sutton Coldfield, which runs a range of community activities and events for all ages, including a Lego club, a coding club, talks from local historians and authors. We have also facilitated the first ever Sutton Coldfield book festival, produced an interactive augmented reality murder mystery challenge and commissioned a children’s opera, Alice and the Library Tree.
As a result, the community has increasing reasons to go to library, and so footfall has massively increased. By effective action, we not only saved the library, but have transformed it into a community hub in the heart of the town.