Birmingham’s history is for everyone

Chris Callow

Chris Callow

I once worked part-time in the archives service at Birmingham’s old Central Library. That experience taught me that archives services do far more than help with a bit of post-Christmas family history research. They give people an interest in a place, and sense of pride in a place, and they are an effective marketing tool for a city to the wider world.

Even if you’ve never set foot in an archive you might well know that they contain exciting things. TV historians wearing white gloves – usually unnecessarily – often manage to find something precious in them.

Yet the importance of the documents themselves, and the stores in which they sit, is far greater than this simple image suggests; archives aren’t for special occasions and their value goes beyond being historical eye candy. That said, Birmingham was recently voted one of the top ten cities in the world to visit by the travel handbook company Rough Guide; it noted that the Library was a defining feature of the city.

Library of Birmingham

Library of Birmingham

Right now the case for the wider relevance of archives needs to be made because in the UK local authorities are looking for ways to save money by making cuts to archives and library services. In Birmingham, the city council is seeking to reduce opening hours and cut over half the staff in its new, award-winning Library of Birmingham (opened September 2013).

Where these cuts will fall within the library is not clear but it seems reasonable to assume that they will affect the opening hours of the Archives, Heritage and Photography section and reduce its already small number of expert staff. The knowledge that such staff have of the archives is extensive and will be impossible to replace if they are made redundant.

Campaigning is underway to discuss the fate of the library services. Petitions seeking to reverse the cuts to the Library of Birmingham and protect its photograph collections can be signed on-line at Friends of the Library of Birmingham Archives and Heritage have organized a public meeting to discuss the future of the Library on Wednesday.

The public needs to know (as do the decision-makers) what is kept in the stores in the Library of Birmingham (LoB) and the wider importance of those archives . The archives are vast, they are important to many different people for many different reasons, and it is in everyone’s interests, especially those people in Birmingham, that they continue to be readily accessible. Like so many other public services, you only discover their value when you go to use them.

The scale and diversity of the archive at LoB is extraordinary, it being one of the largest municipal archives in the UK. It contains not only the city council’s own archives – one of the most significant collections of documents on a major city’s development anywhere in the world – but everything from key documents on technological development and industrialisation, locally and internationally significant photographic collections, to recent records of new communities in Birmingham (discussed on this blog twice previously).

Birmingham’s inevitable connections with its region, Warwickshire especially, means that, among other things, LoB is home to a renowned and extensive collection of material relating to Shakespeare. This, then, is far more than a place to film an episode of Who do you think you are?, although it serves the family historian very well.

Gillian Wearing's sculpture 'A Real Birmingham Family'.

Gillian Wearing’s sculpture ‘A Real Birmingham Family’.

In fact, given the diversity of records of schools, businesses, hospitals, personal papers and photographs in LoB’s archive, family historians find out more in LoB than they might in other archives or via any genealogy service on the internet. The archive is a testament to the generations of archivists who have helped develop it, continue to develop it, and have ensured that it is one of the UK’s designated collections.

The size and diversity of the LoB’s archive means it attracts a diverse audience. From a staff perspective it takes years to actually understand what the archive contains – or at least I hope my own ignorance of it after a year of working there said more about the archive’s size than my ability to learn.

Finally I want to give three examples of the kinds of different users the service has and why maintaining sufficient opening hours and specialist staffing matters. In some respects these examples are typical, in others they are not.

First is simply of a couple of local boys, both probably about 10 years old, both from British Indian backgrounds. They came to the archive one day, unaccompanied, to find out more about the history of their school – I forget where it was in Birmingham exactly they were from. They spent about an hour looking at the earliest (Victorian) records of their school and asking questions about it.

I am not sure what had led them to visit the archive or how they knew it even existed, but they went away knowing more about their own locality than they had before. Limited access will prevent casual ‘engagement’ with kids from ‘hard to reach’ communities like these two, who no doubt went home and told friends and relatives what they had learnt.

Similarly, the proposed complete cut in LoB’s outreach activities will stop all schools’ use of the archive – over 30 schools used it in 2014. No school children will have their knowledge of Birmingham or knowledge of history enhanced once the new financial regime is in place.

Second, is the case of a young married couple who had just moved to Birmingham and just bought their own house, a Victorian terrace. They came to the archive to research the history of their house via building plans and other records about their street. Like my first pair, these were people just developing an interest in their city but their arrival in Birmingham was clearly their own choice. They clearly valued Birmingham’s cultural offering and it had probably given them a reason to move to the city.

People don’t move to new cities on the strength of their archive or libraries but when these services are available and known about, they help shape an impression of them. At present the LoB is probably a draw for professionals choosing where they live; it would be a mistake to disinvest in the cultural sector and deter people from choosing Birmingham for its ‘canals, culture and housing’.

Last, as a type of user, might be the kind of academic researcher from outside the UK who comes to Birmingham, either annually or for one-off visits, because of the specialist collections which relate to their interests. We used to have a historian from New Zealand who came to Birmingham every year in their vacation to use one or two collections of papers; they wrote books where Birmingham featured heavily and which encouraged others to take an interest in the city.

Other examples of historians of modern Britain visiting the archives are numerous. Sadly, limited opening hours will dissuade scholars from the UK and abroad from visiting Birmingham; they will adapt their research and go elsewhere. Given that University of Birmingham’s History department has just been rated as the UK’s best for research it would hope to capitalise on this and grow its own strengths. New UoB researchers hoping to make use of Archives and Heritage may be disappointed. Like anyone else, they might not be able to find the time during the week to visit an archive which is rarely open, or find a person who works there who can offer them informed advice.

6 thoughts on “Birmingham’s history is for everyone

  1. Reblogged this on Museum Network Warwickshire and commented:
    Not my usual reblogging ,but . Something on the value of Archives for personal and cultural well-being, and for the value they have for creating cohesive and vibrant communities. By my (not so old) tutor at the University of Birmingham .

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