Library under siege

Last week was a huge one for British public libraries. A BBC report highlighted the severity of cuts to library services in recent years, and library lovers in the borough of Lambeth made national news when they occupied a branch due for closure.

I believe that the battles happening in Lambeth, and across the UK, aren’t just about those communities. They have lessons for librarians around the world.

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I speak about Lambeth Libraries with some degree of experience. Last year I worked on eleven simultaneous Fun Palaces across the borough. Together with a brilliant librarian, Zoey Dixon, I co-produced events at each one of Lambeth’s library branches, plus the borough archives. You can read updates from Fun Palaces 2015 at my website.

The librarians of Lambeth were wonderful colleagues and collaborators, the equal of any team I’ve worked with Down Under. They knew that libraries were about more than just shelves. They listened to their communities and sought to work with them creating programmes that would support and engage people of all ages and backgrounds. 

They embraced opportunities for creative play and partnership with everyone from Dulwich Hamlet Football Club and City University to comic book makers and retailers, entrepreneurs, jewellers, kickboxers, and tabletop gamers. When it came to creating Fun Palaces, they were smart and flexible enough to take good ideas from all levels of their staff structure, as well as community members and outside organisations.

Zoey Dixon wrote up a full case study for Public Libraries News which you can read here.

Now Lambeth is at risk of losing some of its most beloved libraries, including a historic building which was built in the early years of the 20th century following a grant from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Lambeth Council has closed Minet and Carnegie Libraries with a plan to turn them over to leisure centre contractor GLL. These venues will become “healthy living centres” – gyms which have some bookshelves and a reduced community meeting space. 

The council, of course, face drastic cuts from central government, but the GLL proposal is highly questionable. Where is the evidence of demand for these new gyms? What is the cost of refitting a Grade II listed building to serve this new purpose? Without proper library staffing, what services could plausibly be offered, and could children even visit these non-libraries safely?

It’s unclear to me how such venues could deliver public library services in the sense that the UN and the International Federation of Library Associations define them.

I feel great sympathy for local politicians in the UK, faced with the stark choice of cutting from services which all deserve to have their budgets spared. But Lambeth’s decisions on library provision are baffling to me.

Library service boss Susannah Barnes had previously proposed an alternative approach where a staff and community mutual would take over running all of the existing library sites (PDF download). 

Brixton Buzz reports that the plan was rejected by the council in spring 2015, only for the Council’s overview and scrutiny committee to revisit the option amid mounting opposition to the GLL plans. 

The plan was rejected for a second time early this year (PDF download). A particular criticism was that there was insufficient time to implement the mutual and make the necessary savings – yet that delay was in part due to the fact that the council’s decision left the plan in limbo for most of 2015.

Even more uncomfortably, at last year’s Switch Library Conference in Australia, Lambeth Council’s Director of Corporate Affairs Mark Hynes was a guest speaker (PDF download), touting his borough’s approach as a positive vision of the future, supported by the Lambeth community.

It’s hard to square those claims knowing that even as he spoke, protestors were fighting to protect their local library services, and four months later, community members have taken the desperate measure of occupying one of the sites which has been closed down.

Meanwhile Lambeth councillors have been responding to library lovers’ concerns with derogatory social media posts.

Lambeth councillor Alex Bigham responds to library lovers' concerns on Twitter

Lambeth councillor Matthew Bennett responds to library lovers' concerns on Twitter

There’s plenty of mud being slung as tensions rise, but these library campaigners are hardly rent-a-mob. They recognise the legacy of Carnegie’s endowment and of all the librarians who have gone before, building capacity to serve and engage the people of Lambeth. 

The bizarre libraries-to-gyms plan isn’t delivered in that spirit of trying to find the best solution for the community, to ensure their free access to knowledge and culture, even in times of straitened budgets. And the way local politicians are responding to those protestors on social media is far from constructive.

It’s scary to imagine a world where library lovers have to stand their ground against the police and read up on their rights to peaceful occupation but it’s even scarier to imagine a world where we trade away libraries for gyms with bookshelves, while senior officers of the council making that trade jet around the world to put a gloss on these actions for the library conference circuit.

What I find really weird is that Jane Edbrooke, the Lambeth Council cabinet member whose brief covers libraries, is a self-proclaimed sci-fi enthusiast and fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I mean, it’s hard to imagine a version of Buffy where Giles was replaced by a leisure centre manager…

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Brittas Empire

I send good wishes to the campaigners at Herne Hill’s Carnegie Library and across the borough of Lambeth. And I also hope for all our sakes that librarians and library lovers watching from afar – especially in Australia and New Zealand – have started thinking ahead about what preparations they should make if or when cuts of this kind hit them.

To see more from the Lambeth libraries occupation, visit the campaign group @defendtheten on Twitter.

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