When the council decides it doesn’t need librarians.
I live a five minute walk along the same street from the Carnegie Library, which has just been closed by Lambeth Council – as has the Minet Library, another ten minutes away. These two libraries are both within ten minutes of Loughborough Junction, an under-served, under-loved part of Lambeth that is not leafy, is not ‘village’-y, and where the young and old (as well as everyone else) desperately need a safe, light, bright, community space to learn, study, access the internet, find local support, engage with each other. Both of these libraries have been this for decades. Lambeth have closed them both.
Lambeth’s reasoning is that ten libraries for one highly-populated (and long – I walked between all ten libraries and one archive last year for Lambeth Libraries Fun Palaces, it was a half marathon) is too many, and that they need to spend scarce resources on housing, on health, on homeless. I totally appreciate that this government’s cuts to local authorities are the root source of this problem, but other boroughs around the country have found creative ways to respond to the austerity lie. Neighbouring Southwark, with a virtually identical demographic and all the same inner-city problems, has been BUILDING libraries. Certain Lambeth councillors have also suggested that those protesting the library cuts should be more concerned about violence against women, and about homeless children – clearly they are willfully disregarding the fact that libraries are, traditionally and still, places of sanctuary for these very people. (They are also trying to set local groups and local needs against another, which is disheartening to say the least.)
The crisis in local government funding is real. The immense value that libraries offer at the very time of crisis is also real. They are already a community hub, they are already a place for the elderly to find company, they are already a place for homeless to find warmth and support, they are already a place for the young to study in quiet and safety, they are already the support the community needs.
The council has suggested that the Carnegie’s closure is not permanent, and that they will re-open it ‘sometime’ in 2017, with a gym (which local residents neither want nor need, there are 3 gyms within ten minutes of the library), and with bookshelves … but no librarians. The gym will, of course, need trained staff to oversee it, due to standard health and safety rules, but the ‘library’ will have volunteers and no trained librarians on hand. No-one to take care of the reading group for English language learners, no-one to support the elderly learning internet use, no-one to help the kid from the Loughborough Estate when they need support with their homework. The council say there is a ‘community trust’ who will take over the running of the part of the gym that still has bookshelves … but they are not people who are part of the community NOW. They are not our community. Incidentally, in our first year of Fun Palaces, when I heard about the formation of this ‘community’ group, I contacted them in case they wanted to make a Fun Palace at the Carnegie – after all, a Fun Palace exactly represents the community’s needs and interests, it gives the community a chance to come together, it would give them a chance to get to know the community they said they wanted to represent – they didn’t respond. In 2015 all of the Lambeth Libraries made Fun Palaces, the Carnegie and Minet among them, led by fantastic Lambeth librarians AND local community. Those of us who actually live here know who the ‘community’ is – it’s us, those occupying the library from inside and those standing outside in support.
The council has also suggested that those using the Minet and Carnegie can go to Brixton Tate Library – which is already enormously under-staffed and over-crowded. I was there at 4pm last Thursday and there was not a single desk, table space, floor space or chair that was not already occupied. It’s a great library and already working at capacity. It won’t be able to keep up with the overflow, nor should it have to. (And unlike Lambeth Town Ha’l, it’s not getting a £50m overhall to make it nicer to work in.)
And finally, even if none of the above were so, the Carnegie Library was a gift from Andrew Carnegie to the people of Lambeth, not to the council of Lambeth. It is particularly obvious right now that they are not the same thing. The council then, has taken away a gift that it was never given. It is in their gift to give it back.
Fellow local writer Toby Litt has written beautifully about the value of libraries here.
You can support the campaign on twitter by following @DefendTheTen and following the hashtags #CarnegieLibrary and #CarnegieOccupation.