The readers' revolt
“It’s got to be a dream, being stuck in a library,” said Laura Swaffield, speaking through the metal gate, “and such a great building.” Laura was one of several hundred people who had taken over the Carnegie Library, in south London's Herne Hill. “The occupation was a total last resort, and pretty spontaneous,” she continued, between comments to well-wishers as they huddled from the rain outside the blocked entrance. “At 6pm it was supposed to close, so lots of people were here for a closing celebration. Then someone said, ‘I don’t think we should leave here’, so that’s how it started.”
I was speaking to Laura just three days before the occupation ended, following a court ruling. The occupied library was a hive of activity, with its gates adorned by placards and banners from all manner of well wishers. Many were of the creative standard you might expect from people concerned about the subject, including mock-ups of Penguin book covers, the famous logo replaced with a dodo, with names like ‘Council of Idiots’ (the author named as council leader Lib Peck). Toddlers chalked messages on the flagstones in front of the building. A musician played saxophone for those coming to offer their support (and, often, food and other supplies). The man who ran the local chess club for children was also there, and had been playing chess through the locked gates with children inside.
"The level of support and media coverage is gobsmacking," said Laura. "The council are spending millions of pounds on making people hate them!"
Carnegie Library closed its doors on 31 March until next year, after Labour-controlled Lambeth Borough Council decided to pass over its operations to a company called Greenwich Leisure Limited, a “social enterprise” that runs Lambeth’s other leisure facilities. The council maintains that this does not amount to a closure — indeed there will still be books available in it. But the main purpose of the beautiful building, which began its life in 1901, will be a gym. Library services will be reduced to a self-service area with no librarians.
Author and theatre-maker Stella Duffy has been a staunch defender of Carnegie, the Minet (which closed its doors on the same day) and Lambeth’s eight other libraries. “The reason libraries are able to provide so much — alongside books, DVDs and internet access — is that they are staffed by trained librarians who understand this borough's needs,” she said. “Most of the librarians I know have worked for Lambeth for years. They get this borough. They know what the people need and they do their very best to help — they are a social service and the library is a frontline provider.
“As for the matter of a gym, that's just silly. The Carnegie is directly opposite a fully-equipped public park, the Minet round the corner from one. There are three gyms within ten minutes of the Carnegie and two within ten minutes of the Minet.”
Indicative of the low level of trust between council and campaigners, there are widespread suspicions that this conversion to what they see as an unnecessary gym is part of a cynical plan by the council to eventually sell off the library building entirely.
Lambeth Council, for its part, said in a statement, “There will be staff in the building at all times, responsible for the gym, community space and the library. While it is true that there won’t be professional librarians, we’ve seen in other boroughs that it is still possible to provide these services successfully without them.”
But if the response of the community is anything to go by, the council have lost the argument. After spending several hours there, I realised that I had started to tune out the constant honking from passing car horns — and it is certainly no exaggeration to say that the majority of passing traffic lent its support that way. The row of houses opposite the library all had supportive posters adorning their windows. Parents with children would often drop by to say hello as they walked past. This wasn’t some adventurous action by a militant minority, they seemed to have taken the bulk of the community with them.
Local actor and radio broadcaster Patrick Lyons read out one of the banners bearing the words of librarian Eleanor Crumblehulme, “Cutting libraries in a recession is like cutting hospitals during a plague.” He said, “Take our libraries away and these wounds only intensify, amplify. We all have to draw a line somewhere. Ignorance is not bliss.”
Poet Jemima Foxtrot was visiting the library for the first time, to perform poetry to supporters on this particular rainy Wednesday afternoon. “I think it’s amazing, but tinged with a slight feeling of depression to think that it’s come to this,” she said. “These people are putting their lives on hold to stand up for other people. I’d urge other people who see libraries closing to do the same thing.” For Jemima, libraries are also a vital community space for people who need somewhere to work during the day. Her local library was in nearby Peckham, but she had come in solidarity anyway.
“I go there to go to a work space, get into a different place and interact with people, like kids,” she said, after she had finished reciting a poem she had written especially for the occasion. “In Peckham Library there are students studying, lots of people with English textbooks trying to learn English. It’s quiet and clean. The most important thing is that it’s free. I make up to £600 a month from poetry and half of that goes on rent. You see people with laptops in coffee shops, but that’s £2.30 on coffee, you can only really stay for an hour with that. In libraries there’s no pressure to buy anything, you don’t need to justify being there.”
The rationale for transforming the library is, unsurprisingly, money. Local councils have had their funding slashed by the government, part of its campaign of public sector spending cuts. “We know changing such a valued local service as Carnegie library is a difficult choice and has caused upset and concern from a passionate group of residents and union activists,” said the council statement. “However, Lambeth has much less money to spend on our services. The government has slashed our funding by 56 per cent. And we have to find another £55 million in savings in just the next two years.” But the council received little sympathy on this point from campaigners.
“Of course this is directly the result of central government cuts to local boroughs, but not all boroughs are closing libraries,” said Stella Duffy. “Many have found innovative solutions to allow libraries to remain the social service that they are. It's very painful, as a long-term Labour voter, to see a Labour council buying into the government's austerity lie.”
Jeff Doom, the chair of Friends of Carnegie Library, was similarly dismissive. “The current arguments about cuts are just the latest excuse, and a chance to play political ping-pong with our libraries,” he said. “Southwark [a neighbouring borough] has to make cuts, but consulted people on how to do so and agreed to try to protect services while making savings elsewhere. There's plenty of waste in councils, Lambeth spend huge amounts on consultants and self-promotion, not to mention their continual increases in their own salaries and allowances.
“One obvious alternative would be to accept the Community and Staff Mutual proposed by the Head of Libraries and Archives. It would keep all ten libraries, fully staffed and stocked, within the restricted budget to make all required savings.” The council, however, claims that this alternative is unworkable.
One of the councillors who has drawn the ire of campaigners more than most is Jim Dickson, cabinet member for Healthier and Stronger Communities. He is a director of the PR and lobbying firm Four Communications, and was leader of the council when it was described as “more New Labour than New Labour” by none other than Tony Blair, in 1998.
When asked for comment, Cllr Dickson emailed over the council statement, adding, “I would just say finally that of the many people I have spoken to around Herne Hill about the plans over the past 6-9 months, most understand very well the difficult predicament government cuts have placed us in. They are generally supportive of plans to ensure that the library service at the Carnegie (which my family uses regularly and very much appreciates) is as good as it possibly can be under circumstances which they know we have campaigned very hard to try to avoid.”
All good things must come to an end, and the occupation did it in style. On Saturday 9 April, after more than a week inside the building, the occupiers withdrew, joining several thousand others on a lively demonstration from the library to Brixton. But the campaigners are unlikely to stop being the thorn in the side of those committed to cutting the library service.
“To keep the spirit of our library alive, we'll be staging events and activities in the vicinity of the library and further afield, while also lobbying for the early re-opening of the full service library,” said Jeff Doom. “We are opposed to a phoney ‘neighbourhood library’, opposed to Greenwich Leisure Limited sticking a gym anywhere in the building, opposed to excavation of the basement, which would be an unwarranted intervention in our listed building, and opposed to the imposition of a phoney ‘community hub’.
“We'll certainly keep up the pressure, and with the strong support of Friends of Lambeth Libraries and the wider campaign, we must bolster confidence with determination.”
The past five years have seen the closure of hundreds of libraries across the country, and government cutbacks only ever seem to intensify. The strength of feeling across many communities in the UK against such closures puts lie to claims that libraries are unnecessary in the modern world, and Lambeth Council is not alone in facing the backlash. It wouldn’t be surprising to see more actions like this to defend our libraries, as readers continue their revolt.