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Arts and Activism to Save Birmingham’s Libraries

James Turner's poster for the libraries campaign

It has been a busy two months with the creation of Birmingham Loves Libraries. Many of the city’s artists and those working within the arts have come together to champion the cause and raise awareness of the fact that the majority of Birmingham’s public libraries stand to be closed due to the recent crisis surrounding Birmingham City Council’s financial situation. Birmingham Loves Libraries is reaching out to artists who live within the communities, who love their libraries, and want to make their fellow citizens aware of what potentially is at stake.

James Turner from Stirchley Printworks, who designed the ‘We Support the Strikes’ poster displayed in windows over the last year, was asked to come up with a design for the campaign. His ‘Save Our Libraries’ poster is now available to be displayed in houses and shop windows citywide, giving visibility to the campaign and increasing local knowledge of the situation. 1000 have been printed commercially for free distribution across the city, and it was decided that it would be great to keep the project going with artworks from more artists.

On May 11 there were two Library Awareness Walks in Birmingham, putting the ‘active’ in activism and highlighting the sheer distances library users have to travel to get to a library that isn’t directly accessible. The first was organised by Arts Forum Selly Oak, Stirchley Art Room and the Friends of Stirchley Library, and involved three out of the four libraries in the Selly Oak district. The walk commenced at Touchbase Pears in Selly Oak, home to the Selly Oak Library collection, and continued past the Grade II listed original building which has been closed since 2018.

Novelist Catherine O’Flynn reads at the beginning of the Library Awareness Walk.

After a break for banner making at Bisque & Bean on Raddlebarn Road, we continued to Stirchley Library for a poetry map-making exercise before undertaking the longer walk to Druid’s Heath Library for a flag making activity on the grassy area around the library. At each stop, we were joined by a different author or poet including the award-winning novelist Catherine O’Flynn, writer and journalist Tracy King, local poet Hayley Frances, and first-time author Nargis Darby.

Following a call-out for artists and art-activists to help save Birmingham’s libraries, the group was inundated with people wanting to get involved with the cause. Many local library campaign groups started hosting their own banner making workshops, with some seriously impressive results. And from there, it has snowballed. We were contacted by Simon Price, who recently made a film highlighting the plight of the Bournbrook Skate Park, a major factor in the City Council making a U-Turn on its decision to close it. Photographer Black County Type has joined us as well as Punks and Chancers, home of the iconic YES BAB clothing brand. Cartoonist Michael Kennedy has been interviewing library users and is creating a fantastic resource of portraits in his wonderful style.

Sarah Barton of Stirchley Art Room makes a flag with artist Shaheen Ahmed at the May Day rally.

The campaign reflects the communities that support and use the library services, taking an approach that anyone can join in, a grassroots approach to the arts. We have seen the wide variety of banners and placards from sessions at Stirchley Art Room, and queer illustrator and DIY print maker Jenny Howe has also joined the campaign. With an interest in nature Jenny’s work is like craftivist and artist Shaheen Ahmed, who will be making flags from library discards to be planted as ‘protective rings’ around libraries.

And finally, we have poets who have joined the cause, including Bradley Taylor,

host of Overcoat Poetry who recently hosted a night of poetry dedicated to libraries; Bramwell Griffiths, who is collecting memories of libraries threatened by closure; and Ruben Whitter, who read his ‘In Birmingham We Assemble’ poem at the Brum Rise Up May Day rally earlier this month.

Ruben Whitter, author of ‘In Birmingham We Assemble’. Photo by Adelaide Di Nunzio

Ruben captures the hearts and voices of the citizens of Birmingham in these uncertain times, reflecting the art and artistry that has emerged over the last two months in support of our campaign. The colourful banners, the DIY flags, the cartoons and the posters, spreading across the city in vibrant Ruben writes: “We rise in technicolour, voicing those working class.”


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