Whitby's office looks out on to the existing Birmingham Central Library, an inverted modernist ziggurat built in 1973-4. This is the building Prince Charles famously described as a place where books were incinerated rather than borrowed. Unlike him, I once spent long, happy hours reading here, amazed that so many books (2.5m of them, stretching over seven floors) were at the disposal of a non-princely nobody like me. Now culture minister Margaret Hodge has given the go-ahead to flatten this Grade II-listed building; demolition will be completed over the next five years. Why must it go? "It leaks, and great big chunks of concrete keep falling from it," says Birmingham head of libraries, Brian Gambles. He keeps a souvenir chunk in his office to prove the point. "It's ugly and unfit for purpose and would cost too much to properly renovate."In advance of a report on libraries, the Culture Minister sees volunteerism, loyalty cards and 'creative thinking' as avenues to reform:
Hodge wants such reforms to revolutionise the library service without adding to the cost. "It isn't enough to say, as some do, that all libraries need is more money to supply more books and have longer opening hours. The point is we have got to be more innovative, because the money ain't there." She cites the head of Norwich libraries as a success story. "She has reversed the national footfall trend. She told me that if she's ever stuck for an idea on how to run libraries, she visits Tesco." Hodge is also impressed by the ideas of Starbucks' UK MD Darcy Willson-Rymer, who argues that the best way to save libraries is to put coffee shops in them, as they have in the US. "I like the idea of browsing books in a library with a coffee." She is fearful for those libraries that won't embrace such changes, describing them as "sleepwalking into the era of the iPhone, the ebook and the Xbox without a strategy". Having no strategy, Hodge argues, runs the risk of turning libraries into "a curiosity of history, like telex machines or typewriters".Naturally, cost cuts - rather than even unchanged funding levels - are a focus across the country:
Of course some Britons couldn't care less about saving their local library. When West Sussex county council recently announced it was planning to reduce opening hours for three out of four libraries, in order to save £200,000, several blog posts on the Brighton Evening Argus website suggested the cuts weren't deep enough. "I haven't been to the library for years," wrote Arthur of Horsham. "I read papers online, get information from the internet and buy books from Amazon. The people who most 'need' them – are the least likely to use them – too busy watching rubbish on TV. They are essentially outdated and should morph into more of an online information service."Lastly, on the ground how does an average library manage patron experience:
Consider this vignette. Last week I was angrily returning a book to Islington Central Library when I passed a woman in the foyer drinking beer and swearing at people going in and out. It was 9.45am. But it wasn't her who made me livid. I was angry because when I read the book I had borrowed – the AA Guide to Los Angeles – it informed me that LA was looking forward to hosting the Olympic Games. Hold on: didn't LA host the Olympics in 1984? And wasn't that 26 years ago? It turned out that the book dated from the late 1970s. It's perhaps unfair to point out that Margaret Hodge was Islington council's leader from 1982 to 1992. But during that period someone, surely, should have thought of taking the AA Guide to LA out of service.