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Libraries

I am angry. I am very angry. I need to get confirmation of what I have just been told but, if it really is the case, then I am very angry indeed.

To cut a long story short, last year, my local authority, Lambeth, decided in it’s infinite wisdom, that it would close my local library, the Carnegie, in Herne Hill, SE London, in order to convert the basement into a gym and have a much reduced library on the ground floor, with no professional library staff available or, at least, only available for a short period every week. On February 8th the Council, in it’s infinite wisdom, approved the plans, which will now be implemented.

As a wheelchair user, access was never amazing but, by dint of ringing a bell at the bottom of the steps to the main entrance, at least a member of the library staff would come out, help you through a side entrance to a lift in the basement and up to the main library area. Not ideal but at it worked. I have just asked what will happen when the basement is converted into a gym. Would we still be able to access the lift. I have been told that wheelchair access will, in future, be via a ‘circuitous stairway route’!

Well friends, what part of ‘stairway’ and ‘wheelchair’ won’t work do we think?

Could it be that, as I am not a dalek with an amazing ability to levitate, I, and other disabled and older people with mobility issues, will NOT BE ABLE TO GET IN AT ALL?

Discrimination anyone?

Of course, I am fully aware of the fact that there are other options available to me, such as a home library service where someone brings my choice of books to me but, and in my opinion, its not the same thing. Whilst, of course, a home delivery scheme has it’s merits for a lot of people, it’s not, in my opinion, the same thing at all.

Half of the fun of going to the library is having the ability to browse the shelves and find new books and authors you never knew about. There is nothing like pulling a book off the shelf, purely because it has an engaging title, reading the blurb on the back and the author’s biog on one of the inner flaps and thinking ‘This looks interesting, maybe I’ll give it a try.’ I really cannot count the number of times, over the years, that this has happened to me. Many of those books now rank amongst my favourite reads of all time and without the ability to browse the library shelves I might never have found them.  

Then there’s another important issue that also needs thinking about, apart from he issue of access for disabled people.

There are already three gyms, with swimming pools, in the immediate area as well as a large park over the road and another, even larger park, fifteen minutes walk away in the centre of Herne Hill itself. Why, exactly, do we need another gym? Has anyone ever given any of us an answer to that? Not only that but, as far as I am aware, Lambeth has not done any form of impact assessment for the people living in the streets surrounding the library building. The library is in a residential area, with two busy primary schools in the immediate vicinity, and the majority of the streets surrounding the building are Controlled Parking Zones with daytime parking restrictions because of those schools. In the evenings these same streets are where residents park their cars after work, outside their own homes. There is no space for gym users to use. There are no car parks nearby and no room for one to be built. So where would Lambeth Council suggest that gym users should park their cars? Any ideas?

And then there is the noise issue. As I have already said, the library building, where the gym will be, is in a residential area where families with young children and older people live. It is a quiet area. The people who live nearby are not going to welcome any disturbance and disruption in the evening caused by the noise made by gym users leaving the building, getting into their cars and driving away after their fitness sessions.   

It is very clear that this plan has still not been properly thought through and that, yet again, Lambeth have jumped in, feet first, without considering the cost and the consequences for local residents.

Let me reiterate. We do not need another gym. You can keep it. We do not need gym users causing noise and disruption. You can keep them too. What we need is our library. We want to keep that. A gym will only make things worse for Council Tax payers and residents in the area. Please Lambeth Council, give us back our much loved and much used library and stop trying to make a fast buck on the side. If you ignore us and our wishes, let me tell you, when the next Council elections come round, we will not forget and we will not forgive.   

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Yesterday, yet another library in my Borough, the London Borough of Lambeth, was closed. Parents and toddlers coming for their weekly story-telling afternoon were turned away, doors were padlocked to keep both staff and customers out, shelves were cleared and removal vans were sent in to remove both furniture and assets. Today I am seeing pictures of packing crates in empty rooms and uniformed security guards patrolling the premises and hearing tragic tales of other local libraries nationwide being striped of their staff, their stock and their identity.

Why?

What is it about Libraries, their history, their function, their unique position in society, their unquestionable importance, that my local Council, and indeed, other Councils don’t seem to understand? Libraries were set up to be free, public repositories of knowledge not, as Lambeth seems to think, a simple bookshelf in a church hall, surgery or gym which is what they are proposing that we should have.  This wanton destruction of our precious facilities, our heritage, our children and grandchildren’s futures has to stop now, before it’s too late and the situation cannot be reversed.

The heart is being ripped out of our communities and it can’t be allowed to continue.

According to figures I have seen in the last couple of days regarding council spending, I understand that during the last financial year over £13million of our Council Tax in my area was spent on ‘Corporate Office Accommodation’, whatever that might be, whilst only a miserly £57,000 was invested in library provision Boroughwide. £57,000 invested in one of the greatest information resources we have in the area. £57,000 invested in our young people’s future. In a Borough with a total population of around 316,000 people that amounts to just £5.58 for each man, woman and child. Not even the price of your average cut-price paperback.

Well, forgive me, but that just doesn’t seem right.

I pay my taxes for services and facilities that will benefit everyone not just a select coterie at the top. Services that will benefit, not just me, but my children, my future grandchildren, my neighbours, my neighbours’ children and grandchildren and my entire community. I don’t pay my taxes for unused empty buildings and city centre office blocks. I want value for the many for my money, not perks for the few but that’s not what I’m getting.

And I can look at what’s happening from a different angle, through different eyes. I am not just a local resident and taxpayer, I am also a trained librarian so I can look at what is happening as a qualified professional, not just as a vociferous and angry service user. I have worked in public libraries, school libraries, university libraries and specialist libraries within national and multinational businesses and corporations.

When I studied for my BA(Hons) in Librarianship in the 1980s, I learnt about the beauty of both language and literature, the wonder of local and national history, the importance of all knowledge and I was taught everything I needed to know about high quality information provision for all. I learnt about storing, guarding, protecting and sharing information and helping others to access that information whenever they needed to. I was not taught how to pack it away and put it into storage, hidden from sight, which is what seems to be happening, not just in Lambeth, but throughout the country.

I’m pretty sure we were taught that what local communities wanted and needed and cherished was unfettered access to books and computers and information and space to study with properly qualified, fully committed, professional library staff who knew the local area and what other facilities were available for people to use should they want to. We were not taught to value corporate offices we were unlikely to ever use or see. We were trained to become Library staff who were prepared to invest time and effort in listening to our customer’s questions, finding the answers to those questions and showing people how to do their own research if they wanted to know more. I’m pretty certain we weren’t taught that what local communities wanted most for their money were posh offices with comfy chairs and shiny desks for transient local councillors and overpaid council executives.

How much longer will both Lambeth Council and other Councils continue to forget that local libraries are a valuable resource for everyone, maybe even the most valuable of all resources for so many people within the area?

Residents have been investing in their libraries for decades so please, don’t close them and take them from us. We have needed them in the past, we still need them now and we will continue to need them long into the future.

Don’t take away one of the greatest assets we all have. There must be other, less painful ways to save money. Leave us our libraries and try something else.

I have been been gently fuming for a couple of weeks now.

My anger has been like a slow burning fuse on a pile of dynamite and now I am ready to explode.

If you have been reading or watching the local and national news over the past two or three weeks you may have seen stories about a local library in South East London that was scheduled for closure by the Local Authority and was therefore occupied by local people for several days in protest at that closure.

Well, that was my local library. If I hadn’t been stuck in bed due to my impairment, I would have been there too but I wasn’t able to take part in that bit of the protest, much to my chagrin. However, that doesn’t mean I did nothing. I might not be able to protest physically any more but I can do it in words. Writing is what I do best so I wrote. My contribution to the fight was to send letters voicing my concerns to local Councillors and MPs asking them to stop what they were doing and reconsider. I wrote to all three to my councillors, only one responded, I wrote to my MP who sent me a nice but largely ineffective email back, I wrote to members of the Greater London Authority who didn’t bother replying to me at all and I wrote to my MEP who ignored me. All the protests, the marches, the occupation, the petitions and the letters were disregarded and ignored and the library ended up being closed.

But the fight goes on.

The closure of the Carnegie Library in Herne Hill was part of a programme of library closures planned and orchestrated by Lambeth Council. The idea seems to be that we will get a lovely, but unwanted and unneeded, new gym, with a bookshelf in the corner, and no Library staff whatsoever. Lambeth Council are hellbent on getting us to exercise our bodies whilst ignoring the importance of exercising the mind.

How short-sighted. How wrong and how short-sighted.

But that’s not the thing that’s angered me the most about the whole situation. No whilst I am incensed by the library’s closure, the thing that has rattled my cage and prompted my ire, and this blog, is the email I received from one of my Ward Councillors in response to my letter of protest.

Councillor Jack Holborn, Labour, informed me, in an email,  that: ‘If we specially exempted the library service from any cuts, more would have to come from the big areas of the budget, such as looking after older people, or council tax support for the poorest.’

How dare he!

How dare he try tugging on heartstrings by implying that it was the library or services for the most vulnerable in the Borough that had to go! He was obviously trying to make me feel guilty about wanting to put books over people. Well, I am a severely disabled person and a qualified Librarian and what he has written will not wash with me. I find it despicable.

Libraries are not just about books, libraries are about people too. Libraries are places people visit to find information about local groups and services. Libraries are places where local groups such as local historians, and preschool story-telling groups can meet. Libraries are places where schoolchildren can work. Libraries are places parents can take their children, secure in the knowledge that there are people there who can help them to learn. Libraries are places where students can do research for their exams and assignments. Libraries are places where people can access computers and the internet if don’t have that facility at home and where everyone can receive professional guidance should they need it. How dare Councillor Holborn try to imply in his response that, by wanting to save all that and so much more, I was not concerned about local people. I am very concerned about local people Mr Holborne and, what concerns me the most, is the fact that they, and I, am currently represented by someone who would dare to try playing such tricks with my heart and mind and think he could get away with it. Well, it didn’t work. You failed. Jack Holborne, please rest assured that there is one voter here who will never be voting for you again. I would never be able to put my trust in someone who has the nerve to try to do what you have done. Implying that I don’t care about disabled and older people and poorer people was a step too far. I would never be able to trust anyone who believes they can get away with doing that. 

You’ve lost me.

Bye-bye.