Library campaigners summon ghosts of Carnegie past

New yellow ribbons on the Carnegie library railings
New yellow ribbons on the Carnegie library railings

The future of Herne Hill’s Carnegie library continues to provoke controversy as local residents contest its future.

Campaigners will tomorrow (9 July) mark with a protest the 110th anniversary of the opening of the library and 100 days since it was closed, while another group has called for more people to join its plans to take over the building from Lambeth council and turnout into a “community hub”.

The council has closed the Carnegie as well as the Minet library in Myatt’s Fields while it continues with its own plans  to turn them into healthy living centres, run by its leisure provider, GLL, which will include gyms.

The protest organisers say that library users will be outside the Carnegie at 3.30 pm tomorrow – the time of the original opening –  in Edwardian dress “to embody the ghosts of the speakers who proudly welcomed ‘the wonderful building, the whole effect of which is very cheerful and pleasant”.

1906 characters who will be represented include Lady Edith Durning-Lawrence, whose sister, Jemina Durning, funded the Durning Library in Kennington in 1889 with a whopping 10,000 guineas

Edith’s husband, Sir Edwin, was one of the first Lambeth library commissioners. They laid down that: “The great extent, the extreme length and even breadth, and the very fantastic shape of the Parish, compel the establishment of District Libraries and Reading Rooms in different localities of the Parish, so that every person shall be within a few minutes’ walk of one of them … ten … should be established.”

Andrew Carnegie, who was not there in 1906, but who stumped up the then huge sum of £12,500 to build the Carnegie, will also be represented.

This donation was made, the campaigners say, “at Lambeth’s own request”. They add that the funds were provided “on the express condition that the building be properly funded and run as a library, and not as anything else – certainly not a gym”.

In a statement, the campaigners said: “Today, only a ghost can get into the Carnegie library.

“Work has now started inside the building to survey the basement – at unknown expense – to see if it can be excavated to accommodate a fee-charging GLL gym that nobody wants.”

Campaigners have also replaced dozens of yellow ribbons tied to the library’s railings that had been removed by the council.


Appeal for trustees

In another development, the Carnegie Community Trust (CCT), which is opposed by the campaigners because, they say, of links with the council and local Labour party, called for new trustees to come forward.

The trust said it is looking for people to help the charity work to transfer the Carnegie library “into community ownership, to regenerate and safeguard our landmark civic building, and reopen it under community management”.

It said it was planning for a “community asset transfer”. This is “a process by which a local authority can transfer ownership of a building, usually via a lease, to a legally constituted organisation with appropriate charitable or social objectives, working for the benefit of the community”.

CCT has applied for such a transfer of the Carnegie building and plans to submit its business case to the council in September to enable a final decision.

It says its vision remains the same as it was when first proposed in 2011 – “namely in a modern context to combine lifelong learning with both enterprise and social activities in a flourishing community hub for everyone in Herne Hill. CCT is now moving forward from the start-up stage of testing project viability towards the challenge of running a large multi-purpose community building. Trustees are now needed who can help take Carnegie to this next stage”.

The closing date to apply is 31 July.



  1. The CCT is eager to take pepper-corn possession if not out-right ownership of the Carnegie Library. However, the bottom line of their business plan is to make do without professional librarians. Follow-up studies up and down the country of library closures which are replaced by volunteer run “hubs” show rapid decline in usage by the public. By contrast, library usage in Lambeth has risen in successive years by large margins, some of the highest increased usage margins in the country, in fact (according to Susannah Barnes, the current very successful head of library services in Lambeth). This (volunteer run trusts) is a very short-sighted policy initiative and should not in my view be supported or encouraged by anyone who believes that local public libraries still have a very important role to play, as important as it was for our Victorian predecessors or arguably more so, as we enter the eye of the information age hurricane. We need to think responsibly about this: do we want a library service or not? Or will we be content with community activity centres (not only for ourselves but also for our children and their children) and will be so happy to follow the free advice I heard given recently by a helpful motorist to library campaign marchers in Lewisham: “Get a kindle!”

  2. In contrast to the unrepresentative CCT, there is a genuinely democratic charity registered by a partnership of The Friends of Carnegie Library and various user groups: Carnegie Library Association CIO. We will shortly be extending membership and welcoming additional trustees. Our business case will reflect our vision of reopening Carnegie Library as the thriving place it was before 31 March, with wider compatible uses to link with and support the core function. It will honour the spirit of Andrew Carnegie and prove his £12,500 gift was a good investment.

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