Our disappearing Central Library

All across Cardiff the consequences of the ‘austerity’ imposed by London to bail out the greed and recklessness of the financial industry are becoming ever more apparent, from the rubbish-strewn streets via the crippled public services to the destitute people. The situation is made even worse by the shambolic incompetence of the ruling Labour Council. Riven by internal feuds, clashing egos and mutually-hostile factions, the clueless Council staggers from crisis to crisis, lacking the philosophical, political, intellectual or moral fibre to challenge or subvert the cuts agenda and reduced to implementing the race-to-the-bottom nostrums of big business. How Labour’s craven, cack-handed mismanagement of the city is panning out on the ground is well illustrated by their attack on public libraries.

Cardiff’s first free library available to the general public, paid for by voluntary subscriptions, opened in 1861 in a room above the St Mary Street entrance to the Royal Arcade. Immediately popular, the library moved across the road in 1864 to larger quarters within the 1852 YMCA building. The Philharmonic Music Hall replaced the YMCA in 1876, so the hugely over-subscribed library was forced to decamp with the YMCA to temporary premises further up St Mary Street. Despite the fact that the Public Libraries Act of 1855 had given local authorities the powers to provide free libraries on the rates, it took nearly 30 years for Cardiff Council to deliver.  Eventually, in 1882, the Free Library in Trinity Street was opened, with a southern extension added in 1896. Designed by Edwin Seward (1853-1924), also responsible for Cardiff Royal Infirmary, the Coal Exchange, St David’s Hospital and the David Morgan department store, the elaborately detailed neo-gothic statement commanded its island site between St John’s churchyard and The Hayes. In stark contrast to the anti-intellectual climate of today, the occasion was deemed so important it was declared a public holiday and the people of Cardiff thronged the Trinity Street and Working Street entrances with wild enthusiasm. Learning and knowledge for their own sake had yet to be belittled, marginalised and abandoned in favour of the dumbed-down stupidocracy orchestrated by the Murdoch press.

The Free Library was a much-loved Cardiff focal point, meeting place and creative hot-house for over a century until replaced by a new Central Library in Bridge Street in 1988 (the Free Library survives as the ‘Old Library’, now home to the juvenile and obfuscating Museum of Cardiff).  The new library was a brutish concrete polygon by Shingler & Risdon of London, plonked on top of shops as part of the original St David’s shopping mall development, and requiring an exhausting climb up never-ending flights of stairs to reach. Hailed by the Council spin doctors of the time as the cutting-edge envy of other cities everywhere, it lasted a mere 18 years before being demolished to make way for St David’s 2 in 2006. Nobody lamented.

The previous Central Library

The previous Central Library

After three years of a temporary library in John Street, housed in portacabins that shook if someone sneezed, the brand new Central Library on The Hayes opened in 2009. Again, the demands of developers took priority over public access – the Council having handed control of the city centre to big business in exchange for help with the costs – and the actual book areas were forced to sit atop ranks of commercial operations. Novelty appeal wore off quickly and the gimmicky, over-egged six-storey building with its dated blue panels and mean dimensions must now be declared a major disappointment. Because so much of it is unusable space given over to stairwells, lifts, walkways and light-grabbing atriums, the architects (BDP of Manchester) could only make room for 90,000 books, a measly sum for a flagship, capital city library and not half of what the Free Library stocked a century earlier. The inescapable impression is that the real priorities are the shops and restaurants on the ground floor, with the library just a box-ticking obligation.

Subsequent events have confirmed this impression. Firstly, the building itself has been plagued by structural problems, with whole floors having to be closed off for months at a time because those panels keep developing leaks (nobody seems to have informed the designers that Cardiff’s prevalent weather condition is penetrating drizzle). At this rate of deterioration the look-at-me edifice will be hard pushed to match the brief lifespan of its predecessor. Secondly, as the Labour Party has long abandoned its founding purpose and principles to become yet another front for free-market apologists, the “uneconomic” library service is deemed to have no intrinsic value unless it can be monetised. For Labour libraries are thus low-hanging fruits, easily pickable and readily disposable. Meanwhile, to give just one example of what Labour considers worth spending Cardiffians’ money on, they have written off a £4.4 million debt owed to the city by Glamorgan County Cricket Club; a scandalous misuse of scarce resources to prop up the farcical Sophia Gardens failure of an elitist private club for rich Little Englanders while vital services for the disabled, children, the elderly and the vulnerable are decimated. It raises a couple of questions. Can all sports clubs in Cardiff have a £4.4 million gift, or just those that are anti-Welsh? And, is this give-away actually lawful? West Ham United’s preferential treatment in the Olympic Stadium deal is currently being questioned under European competition and state aid laws, leaving the football club potentially liable for a massive compensation bill. Cardiff Council’s incredible decision to pander to the demands of their special friends at Glamorgan is equally dubious and should be tested in court.

What this does show is that all Labour’s crocodile tears about the cuts and all their attempts to wriggle out of responsibility are totally phoney: there is nothing inevitable about them; they are political choices Labour is making. Going back to the library service, Labour’s original outrageous proposal to shut seven of the 19 branch libraries* was reversed in February after a massive campaign across the city shamed them into a U-turn. It helped that high-profile names like Ken Follett and James Dean Bradfield backed the campaign – Labour always swoons at a little stardust – and merely illustrated how the Party doesn’t even have the courage of its own convictions or the ability to make a coherent case for cuts which only a week earlier they were describing as “unavoidable.” Nobody should delude themselves that this means the libraries are safe – Labour’s dissembling mendacity can never be trusted. The proposals have been reworked on the back of a fag packet to make them less draconian and more palatable, meaning the library service will now die a slow death by a thousand little cuts. It is all being dressed up in the sterile clap-trap of ‘public-private partnerships’, ‘community hubs’, ‘social enterprises’, ‘innovative solutions’ etc, etc – which when translated into comprehensible English amount to a surrender of these precious assets to commerce. The last publicly-owned buildings in the city, where anyone can wander in out of the rain to read, browse, use the internet, discover, think, meet, imagine or just loiter, are destined for a tawdry future as semi-privatised coffee shops with a skeleton staff and a book-shelf.

What’s happening to the Central Library is a foretaste of Labour’s intentions. Floor 5 has been closed indefinitely, no doubt clearing the way for a high-end eaterie with nice views, and with it have gone the magnificent Local Studies and Welsh Studies collections, built up painstakingly over decades. They’ve been packed off to an inaccessible warehouse a mile outside the city centre on the traffic-choked arse-end of Newport Road, making Cardiff the only capital city anywhere that treats its own priceless written archives with such contempt. Perhaps Labour don’t want the people to know what’s been going on in this city – with good reason, given their appalling record. (Hey! If you haven’t already, read Cardiff The Biography to find out more!)

When the Manic Street Preachers opened the new Central Library in 2009, a plaque with lyrics from their song A Design for Life was unveiled: “Libraries gave us power.” This is the power Labour want to take away. The power of knowledge; the power to hold the powerful to account; the power to change the world. There is a statut0ry requirement on all local authorities to provide a ‘comprehensive’ library service. Cardiff Council must not be allowed to get away with anything less.

The 19 branch libraries are: Canton (Library Street), Cathays (Fairoak Road), Ely (Grand Avenue), Fairwater (Doyle Avenue), Grangetown (Havelock Place), Llandaff North (Gabalfa Avenue), Llanedeyrn (Maelfa), Llanishen (Kimberley Terrace), Llanrumney (Countisbury Avenue), Penylan (Penylan Road), Radyr (Park Road), Roath (Newport Road), Rhiwbina (Pen-y-dre), Rhydypennau (Llandennis Road), Rumney (Brachdy Road), Splott (Splott Road), St Mellons (Crickhowell Road), Tongwynlais (Market Street) and Whitchurch (Park Road).

Picture: locus_imagination