Megan Roberts addresses a letter to councillors and the community about the imminent closure of Carnegie library
I’ve continued to mull on the impossibility of Lambeth’s plans to turn our local library (Carnegie) into a gym … the points are so numerous that I apologise if this letter becomes too long!
Our councillors tell us there will still be a library in the new gym arrangement. This will be an unstaffed library which leads to an enormous number of issues. Here are just a few:
- Almost every time I’ve taken out books from the library (every two weeks or so) using the machines, I’ve needed help – the code on the book won’t read, the machines have crashed, my daughter has interfered and signed out the wrong book, I have fines to pay, I need to take out a DVD, a strange note appears that I don’t understand, etc. The machines may cut down on staff requirements, but they can’t replace staff. You might have noticed that with several years of self-service machines in supermarkets, there is still ALWAYS somebody specifically dedicated to the machines to help people with them, and the machines have constant and frequent problems. Let’s admit that a library manned by machines is going to function for a very short amount of time before it spends most of its time waiting for someone to pop in and fix it. In which time, of course, people will have ‘given up’ on the library – perfect reason to close it altogether, I fear, because by then it will appear that there is ‘no demand’.
- I’m ashamed to admit it, but every time we come to the library, my daughter causes mayhem. When I can, I tidy up afterwards but with a two-year-old, this isn’t always possible. The librarians make it completely acceptable for a two-yea- old to “rearrange the books”, and they join me to help clear up afterwards. Many families (with more children, or more lively children) don’t have the option to stay and help clear up. Essentially, an unstaffed library that welcomes children will be a bombsite. Which leads to my next point:
- I understand that unsupervised children under 16 won’t be able to use the library. This is terrifying! This is a key audience! If we can’t encourage teenagers and young people to use the library independently, how are they going to mature to an independent adult world where they have confidence in their reading, writing and other communication skills? What’s the point in creating enthusiasm in reading and attending the library with my daughter if I can’t let her go there alone by the time she’s in secondary school? I respect that this is a safeguarding requirement but it returns then to the impossibility of having an unstaffed library. Yesterday at the library I met two primary-school-aged children who were carefully checking their watches as they were there alone and knew they had to be home in time for lunch. It felt incredibly special to see a vision of what I hope for my child in years to come.
- Requesting books. I understand the library will be significantly smaller. Already, I order and request books at least every month for my book club. I hope there is a system for accommodating this – the reading needs of library users are far too diverse to squeeze into a smaller space. Indeed, even in the existing space, I’d be sorry to see the request system go.
- I understand that somebody will be coming in to deliver sessions for under-fives. While this is encouraging to know, I don’t believe people will attend without a great deal of support – and especially not the people who need it most. It has taken a long time to build up the high level of attendence at Friday’s Wriggle and Rhyme sessions (I would say at least 30 children and their parents every week) – this has come through encouragement from library staff throughout the week, promotion, a constant and varied level of activities, and the awareness that the library is a warm, welcoming and sociable place to go beyond the parameters of these sessions. I was encouraged to come only after several exchanges with librarians as I took out books. Furthermore:
- While somebody is expected to provide sessions for under-fives, I am also concerned that it is ESSENTIAL that many of the other supporting factors of the library remain in place. I have been a teacher in the past. Homework and other children’s clubs offered by libraries are crucial in levelling out society and enabling children from every background to access support. I hope I’m preaching to the converted here, but I’m not convinced that you are considering the importance of the library in providing opportunities for everyone. Right now, with the cost of University and the lack of job opportunities for young people, it is more important than ever to enable reading and extra-curricular development opportunities to EVERYONE – for free.
- Why is Southwark giving a book a month to every child born this year until they’re five, while Lambeth is closing its libraries?
- It seems that by turning the library into a GYM of all things, they are precisely cutting out the audience that uses it and recreating it for the people who don’t – people who already attend gyms elsewhere, often near their workplaces.
- There is a lot of concern about the lack of consultation for the entire project. While I’m not sold on the idea of a gym, they could at least have TRIED to involve the existing users in the gym plans. Parents of young children are invariably wondering how to regain their former fitness – they could have come and spoken to us, offered us discounts or a creche, for example! Perhaps there were similar arrangements that could have been offered to other users. But the idea isn’t developed enough to make any such efforts, I imagine. Is there even an audience for a gym? I believe the consultation was extraordinarily narrow, and I have yet to come across anyone who was part of it, despite my moderate network across the local community.
- Finally, I’m seriously concerned at the waste of a beautiful building while the library is closed. From what I understand, when the library closes its doors, work isn’t about to begin because there are no serious, approved plans for how the work will happen. This is a listed building, and unused buildings rapidly fall into disrepair. Furthermore, will many of its beautiful attributes (such as its windows) need to be covered up to protect them from the vibrations, damp and other side-effects of a gym? Do people know this? Do they have any idea what a beautiful asset the library is?
- Of course there are the budget cuts of Lambeth council. I understand this isn’t a council choice. I am not in charge of budgets, but for as long as there are plans to build a Garden Bridge in Lambeth then excuses for making cuts to essential services are utterly unfounded.
- Furthermore, and every bit as importantly, as far as I’m aware, there is no clear reason for rejecting the proposal of the Staff-Community Mutual, which would have kept all ten Lambeth Libraries open for a long time, for less money than it costs to turn the Library into a gym.
Thanks very much for reading this far – I’ve never felt personally affronted enough to write a letter to a councillor!
Wingmore Road, Lambeth
I read your letter/post with interest. I have to admit I have never been a fan or avid user of libraries (except when I was in my teens) but I do find the closing of libraries a difficult issue. In an ideal world there would be no limit to these kind of services but of course there are limits. I would say in Lambeth’s defence that from my limited exposure they have excellent services and (although probably not ideal for children) have an excellent e-book and audio book offering. Now as a council tax payer as I imagine we all are I do also think that some efficiencies could be made – as the main Brixton Library is about a mile away (a 10 Min bus ride) some may say that the council is providing adequate facilities even after the closure. I have to say also as a bit of fact checking no public money from Lambeth is going towards the Garden Bridge. That said I do take your point that turning the library into a gym seems to have little basis in a demand locally and more about making these building earn money, a gym membership is a bit more that a free library card! The reality is though rather than reducing maybe opening times or being more efficient with technology and perhaps opening up to volunteer staff they easiest option is to shift the building to a new use and ultimately run by a third party. The other sad thing is that like many of these buildings they really are impressive but again that goes hand in hand with being a nightmare to maintain. It is worth pointing out that (and your letter prompted me to look at the council’s decision on library funding) the community based running/ownership is not off the table but I would say again from the councils point of view that they are pretty complex and not exactly hassle free arrangements. The numbers of people wanting to be involved now may be enough but what about 5 yrs down the line etc. I feel your frustration but I don’t see what Lambeth could do – maybe not take out billboard ads bemoaning the cuts from central government at a cost to us. Anyway I hear your argument and I think it is sad to see these libraries going but maybe the new set up can work but would prefer if the council would perhaps just say no the library is gone rather than promise a “library facility” at the gym because I think we can all agree that being able to collect your books ordered at reception doesn’t make it a library.
At last a thoughtful response.
The elephant in the room is that the proportion of people using libraries is dropping. The Taking Part survey (run by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport), which is a huge face-to-face exercise (10,000+ interviews per year), notes that:
“In the year ending September 2015, 33.9 per cent of adults had used a library in the 12 months
prior to being interviewed. This is a significant decrease from 48.2 per cent in 2005/06 but a
similar proportion to 2013/14.”
Any business, never mind any council, would be seriously alarmed at least by such figures. (It turns out that the rate of decrease has slowed down since the financial crisis – it was somewhat steeper beforehand – and was present before the survey started; there is anecdotal evidence that the participation rate has halved since 1997).
That said, the fix being adopted here has obvious problems. I don’t think it’s been pointed out before, but the rule that children aged below 16 will not be able to enter a “gym-library” unaccompanied is ridiculous.
I also strongly agree with this letter. Please, Lambeth councillors, if you are reading this, take note. It is not too late to reverse this decision. The community of loughbor junction badly needs this resource to help children and adults . It does not need a gym.
Agree with everything in this article. The planned closure of theintact is a disgrace and the local residents do not want or need a gym. The area isn’t blessed with public facilities and meeting points where people can meet socially anyway my now another is planned to close. Seems another example of Lambeth council not listening to the needs or concerns of local people. I’m sure if this goes ahead this will be reflected when the next elections take place.
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