Which is sadly the opposite of what the council is bringing to libraries, though some of them may have bought their own misleading rhetoric which is as positive as can be.
The meeting was called by library staff to talk about what has to be done to preserve and improve our libraries in the face of the reports released on Monday wrapping up years of public consultations. While it is fairly certain that few people have actually read the reports — the size of large encyclopedia volumes, their faded text product of a failing photocopier — the summary from devoted library staff who have read them is that they say very little. “Punching at clouds” is a direct quote. Very heavy, impossible to read clouds.
The clear result of the consultation, however, is that people want to preserve all of Lambeth’s libraries, and they want professional librarians to run them. This does not mean they don’t want to be involved in libraries or volunteer in them, but they do not want to manage them or try to poorly cobble together an inferior service as a last ditch effort to save something so important to our community. It is a service that should be provided and paid for by the council from our taxes.
The stakes in this struggle are clear. Libraries are one of the great equalizers of our society, no? The place where poor and working-class kids can access books, learning, quiet time for themselves. While some people pretend that the technology gap in our society doesn’t exist, the libraries have been proving it wrong as kids come in to use the computers to do their homework and explore their world. The point was made that for disabled people, mobility is a huge issue, yet almost everyone lives within a mile of their local library branch. This is a safe place for them to come and be part of the community, and they have just managed to ensure that all library computers will be installed with the software making them accessible to the blind. Shutting down libraries is an attack on the poorest and most vulnerable residents in our community, but because they are one of the few places providing services for all levels of society where different people meet and mingle, their loss will have a large impact on all of us, no matter where we stand. Local governments closed 10% of libraries across the UK in the past year, and the future looks even bleaker.
So while the message from the community is clear — save libraries and their staff — the council seems to be ignoring it, and just carrying on with what they’ve been carrying on with. On the face of it the report says all libraries will be kept, and gives the welcome news of investment in the physical buildings. But dig a little deeper and you will see the following issues with it:
- the fragmentation of library administration, which both sets branches and neighborhoods into competition with each other for funding, while also making it easier to privatise or sell individual branches in the future.
- £750,000 to be cut from the budget, but no real indication of from where
- The suggestion that libraries will be converted into ‘community hubs‘, which invokes the possibility of a few books on a shelf and a few self-service machines counting as a library service. This could also serve to pit community organizations who need funding and space and see community hubs as an opportunity, against those wishing for libraries to remain fully staffed, fully funded, and with a full complement of resources and books.
- Management reports making clear that 10 staff positions will be lost to help pay for the new self-service check out machines, but that has been nowhere stated in this report or public discussion. Originally, the machines were to have been brought in to free up librarian time to work with community and focus on additional programming. A beautiful dream now lost.
The problem of staffing is already a large one. On Sundays only four staff are working in the beautiful and very big central Brixton branch. Not enough. At least we are still better off than the village libraries of Cambridgeshire. They have cut staff so severely there is only one person working in the library at any given time, so in the interest of safety each library now has a strong room where the librarian can escape to in case of any trouble, bolting the door and calling the police. Possibly a great new plot for Jodie Foster to work with, but hardly a way to run a public resource.
There are also two discussions on that would in effect result in the loss of libraries. One is a proposal to move Streatham library off of the main street and into Gracefield Gardens, which everyone agrees would effectively kill it. The other has been the ongoing discussion of what to do with West Norwood library, putatively closed since its roof was stolen. The council neglect to say that the beautiful copper roof was in fact stolen over a period of ten days, and while it was reported to them they hired no security and took no action. They have spent £780,000 on repairs and could have reopened the library long ago. It turns out that most of the money was spent not on urgent structural repairs, but upon building a separate entrance to Nettlefold Hall, which contains a cinema. It also turns out that one of the “community partners” being claimed by the council and interested in buying the West Norwood property is a private picturehouse company.
This seems to show a bit of planning on the part of the council, a clear intention to unload services and sell off valuable real estate. That is the bottom line, underneath all the rhetoric of cooperation and consultation. They are trying to sell off public property and stop public services, which is why we are standing up to stop them.
A number of suggestions came out of the meeting about what to do next. There will be a delegation to next week’s council meeting, a petition, and a broad campaign not just to save our libraries, but to ensure the council funds libraries to provide the services we need. More will be coming soon with what you can do and how to get involved!