The following guest post is contributed by Phil Segall and reflects on developments in Brent.
Go down to Tokyngton Library in Brent today and you will see a notice from the Council on the door. The sign advises that the library will be “closed in the morning for a staff meeting and will reopen at 2.00pm”. It is not worth hanging around. The library has now been closed for over a year, along with five other libraries in the London Borough of Brent.
The S.O.S. Brent Libraries campaign was formed in May last year following the Council’s decision to implement library closures as part of Brent’s Libraries Transformation Project (LTP). This project, produced with input from the consultancy firm Red Quadrant, outlined the Council’s aim to provide an improved and more efficient library service through a reduction in library premises, along with plans for a ‘super library’ to be located within a new £100 million Civic Centre building near Wembley Stadium (replacing the current Town Hall Library). Library campaigners gained support and raised funds to try to overturn the Council’s decision, resulting in a high profile but ultimately unsuccessful case heard in the High Court in July 2011. The seven libraries which make up the ‘Save Our Seven’ (S.O.S.) Libraries campaign are Barham Park, Cricklewood, Kensal Rise, Neasden, Preston, Tokyngton (all closed) and Willesden Green Library which remains open but is set to undergo redevelopment in a “mini Civic Centre” project seen as unfavourable by many local residents (visit their blog for more details).
Volunteer run libraries
In July of last year, a blog post was published here on the Voices for the Library website, entitled Concerns Over Brent Campaigners Volunteer Run Libraries. This provoked a lot of discussion on the merits of community-led libraries and raised some important issues. Among these were the claims that the existence of libraries being run by volunteers undermines “the importance of the roles trained library staff and librarians have in providing these services” and “discharges [Brent] of their obligations”. Three volunteer setups have now been established in Brent, each with a view to reclaiming a permanent presence either in their previous premises or in the vicinity of libraries closed in their respective areas. On the first anniversary of the closure of six of Brent’s libraries, I spoke to those leading these community projects about why they have chosen to take a stand over this issue and about their hopes for the future:
Friends of Barham Library (FOBL) is a charity run by a small but hard working group of volunteers led by Liberal Democrat Councillor Paul Lorber. He took on the campaign having witnessed the injustice of buildings which Titus Barham had donated for the “enjoyment of local people of Wembley” in the early 1950s being taken away by his associates in the Council. The library worked in conjunction with the Welcome Children’s Centre at the site and had received £200,000-worth of refurbishment works in 2009. Paul feels that, since the closure, the Council has left the Barham Complex which includes the library to deteriorate into a poor state, estimating £160,000 of repair works will need to be undertaken by whoever takes over these buildings.
When Barham Library closed, Paul appealed to the local community for support through fundraising events and stalls outside the premises. He also actively sought other sites where the displaced library community could establish a presence and in Paul’s words, to “fly the flag” for their campaign, setting up the FOBL charity in the process. Initially a volunteer library was set up in Barham Primary School before moving to a more prominent location on Wembley High Road. Here the library has been able to provide a range of activities aimed particularly at children in a bid to keep the library going and to prevent the loss of existing library users, with the ultimate aim being to have a permanent presence back in the Barham Park buildings.
Paul would really like the Volunteer Library to be able to provide computers and internet access in the meantime. This would enable the creation of an after school club for a local college, for example. Yet Paul concedes the library is restricted in what it can offer as there is only limited space in the current premises. He is also the first to admit that the location is not ideal, not least as it is over half a mile away from Barham Park.
The charity continues to raise funds for a bid to reoccupy the Barham Complex with a minimum goal of £25,000 per year being set for this to be achieved. Paul recognises this will not be enough on its own and is supportive of the idea of a new shared service operating in conjunction with the library. “It has been left empty for over a year now,” says Paul. “Local groups are craving space which FOBL would have been happy to share, if it were allowed to gain access”. FOBL is keen to work with these other groups and has secured the support of a local sports mentorship scheme for young people, as one example.
Save Kensal Rise Library along with Friends of Cricklewood Library (FOCL) represent two similar campaigns. The buildings are owned by All Souls College, Oxford which gifted Brent Council these facilities specifically for use as libraries or reading rooms under the Literary and Scientific Institutions Act 1854.
The Council controversially opted to strip the Kensal Rise Library building of all of its contents, including a plaque commemorating the building’s opening by Mark Twain circa 1900, in what was described as a “dawn raid” in May of this year. With the building reverting back to All Souls College, the decision on who will take over ownership of the building now lies in their hands. Save Kensal Rise Library has since put out an appeal for sponsorship in their efforts to reoccupy the building. Support has been overwhelming. The campaign has received well over 500 donations from countries as far flung asAustralia,New Zealand,Israel, theUnited States &Greece. The campaign also received funding from local sponsors – including a local estate agents’ firm which put in £10,000 and produced these (rather nifty) “Not for Sale” signs:
The aim had been to raise £70,000 which was seen as the minimum to make the library habitable again, including the costs of repair work to make good damage which has accrued from over 20 years of neglect. They have now raised over £80,000.
The set up at Kensal Rise is an impressive one, with cheerful volunteers staffing the service daily. I spoke to Margaret Bailey, a Save Kensal Rise Library representative and asked if she had any tips for those who are trying to save their libraries elsewhere. She stressed how “you have got to get the community on board”. This requires finding a bunch of dedicated people who are prepared to dig in and work together. She concedes “there is also luck involved”, with the London location of Kensal Rise and some of the area’s famous residents helping to highlight the cause in a way not seen elsewhere. Margaret cites key activists like Maggie Gee and Tim Lott who live in the area as having boosted the campaign, while Zadie Smith, Philip Pullman and Alan Bennett (who recently opened a community library in Primrose Hill) have also voiced their support.
For Margaret, it is vitally important that a librarian is hired when they reinstate the library. She sees use of managers, rather than librarians as contributing to the demise of libraries in recent years. As at Barham Library, campaigners recognise that the library will need to work in partnership with other organisations following the withdrawal of Council funding. Save Kensal Rise Library has offered to work with a local mentorship scheme called Into University. This supports underprivileged youths in getting into Higher Education. The area also has another existing connection with Oxford University through Magdalen College. As the area is one of the worst in London in terms of illiteracy rates, this is an important partnership when trying to inspire young people to consider Higher Education as an option.
Friends of Cricklewood Library (Kensal Rise’s “softly spoken sister” as campaigner Sally Long describes them) also maintains a presence in the form of a smaller scale pop-up outside their library, led by Brent S.O.S. Libraries campaigner Sonja Nerdrum. As Catriona Troth (‘The Library Cat’) explains in an article for Words with JAM, a number of partnerships are being considered here too, including companies offering courses in computer literacy and English as a second language, as well as Architecture 00:/ which developed the Library Lab project at Willesden Green.
The question still remains, if a movie were to be made of Kensal Rise Library, as Ian Anstice proposes, would it have a happy ending? On the first anniversary of the library’s closure, Margaret spoke of how campaigners awaited a decision which they were “hoping will be very favourable”. A particular source of encouragement was the fact that, in April of this year, All Souls College themselves also penned a letter in support of the building reverting back to a library, a month before they took control of the building over from the Council.
The outcome so far has come as a big disappointment for both Kensal Rise and Cricklewood, however. On the plus side, the importance of having a library presence at both sites has been recognised by All Souls. A spokesperson stated “We congratulated both community groups on their efforts first and foremost.” He added, “The buildings will only be sold if developers agree a library could be run on the site”. The crushing downside is that the current plan is to turn both of these historic buildings into flats, in each case leaving only a small space for the libraries to rent. The current Kensal Rise proposal would also see the Children’s Library building (built with funds donated by Scots-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie) demolished.
These are proposals which have stunned campaigners, as Anthony Gardner from The Economist’s ‘Intelligent Life’ magazine documents. Margaret expresses her frustration at the choice to sell the buildings to a little-known company (Platinum Revolver Ltd.) on the Save Kensal Rise Library Blog:
“When we met with the College in August we had the impression the College wanted to keep the building in community use and was not prepared to see it developed into flats…we tailored our proposal accordingly.”
(The proposal documentation from the Friends of Kensal Rise Library’s bid to run the library can be found here.)
Campaigners for Cricklewood Library have similarly said they would not be prepared to work with the same developer under the terms offered to them.
Since All Souls announced their plans, The Friends of Kensal Rise Library (FOKRL) charity has joined up with another developer (J&K Builders) offering much more generous contract terms and space. This new proposal has been submitted to the College along with an open letter and staged a rally outside the All Souls College building in Oxford to express the outrage felt by FOKRL. Campaigners met with All Souls to hear their response on 20 November and to commence talks about this new plan. Once negotiations are complete, a public meeting is due to take place where it will be up to the Kensal Rise Community to decide whether the College’s offer is acceptable to them. A nomination has also been submitted to Brent Council to list the building under the Localism Act.
Friends of Preston Library (FOPL) campaigners have been vociferous in their protests at not having a library presence within this ward, creating a ‘Wall of Shame’ which at one stage was completely covered with the views of local residents who wished to vent their opinions on the Library’s closure.
When the Council decided they’d had enough of this wall and took it down, FOPL also created a pop-up library outside the entrance of the library, only to see this vandalised and soon taken down when a new hoarding (wire fencing, this time around!) was installed in front of the building.
In response to these developments, local people formed a charitable company called Preston Community Library which created a new pop-up library a few doors down the road. The facility opened its doors last month to coincide with the one year anniversary, with premises provided by local notary Jacky Bunce-Linsell. The move follows the repurposing of the Preston Library as classrooms for a local school in a move which typifies the Council’s response to a shortage of classroom provision in the borough as a whole. YourNewsUKtv has produced a short video about this.
Philip Bromberg of the FOPL campaign contends volunteer arrangements are acceptable “in the short or even the medium term” but states that the campaign is, and always has been, “for the return of a publicly owned, publicly funded and publicly accountable library”.
The Light of Learning Torch Relay
On 13 October 2012, an event took place to commemorate one year since the library closures. Margaret Bailey stressed this ‘Light of Learning’ torch relay, which included guest readings from authors Rahila Gupta and Adam Baron, should also be viewed as a celebration of all the hard work campaigners have put into keeping the libraries open. The campaign amassed 8,766 letters and signatures to former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt at the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, whilst petitions to save each of the individual libraries continue to gain support (for instance the on-going Restore Kensal Rise Library petition). So far these appeals have somewhat fallen on deaf ears, with those in authority proving unsympathetic towards these pleas.
The opening of volunteer libraries is no-one’s notion of an ideal situation but has been born out of necessity in Brent. Quite simply, it is a case of ‘do or die’ for these libraries and where a groundswell of support for libraries in the borough has failed to materialise, the future for those libraries is now bleak – a fate which has befallen the libraries of Tokyngton and Neasden. In Tokyngton’s case, for a while it was rumoured members of the Occupy movement had moved into the library (as has happened in Friern Barnet). Sadly, it later emerged these were “guardians” who Brent Council had employed to protect the building as this become the first Brent library to be sold off. Neasden, meanwhile, was always going to be the most difficult to library to try to save. The Council only leases this high street outlet and already this has been sub-let to a church group called Christ Embassy.
I would not go so far as to suggest that implementing volunteer libraries is the way to go in all public authorities where libraries are under threat. What is happening in Brent, though, shows people still care about physical libraries, they still need them and many are prepared to make tremendous sacrifices to keep them going, even in the face of strident opposition. How could anyone working within the library sector be anything but encouraged by this?! I work within the academic sector and as such I do not feel I am in any position to suggest what is right for public libraries as a whole. As a qualified librarian, though, I do not feel threatened by the presence of volunteer libraries in Brent – quite the opposite, in fact. I respect the work of those professionals in the remaining Brent libraries to transform their services and am certain the new Brent Civic Centre Library will be a big improvement upon the current Town Hall Library. Yet I am far more encouraged to see some of the work that is being done where the libraries have been closed. I am heartened that so many people have put a great deal of work into retaining a library presence in areas which desperately need them. In this respect, Camden Public Library Users’ Group’s sentiments in their provocative blog post, The Demonising of Library Volunteers ring true, viewing those who are prepared to give their time and energy as “the heroic pawns in a local government story of indifference and mismanagement”.
Something I have witnessed first hand has been the incredible generosity which people have shown in providing support for these burgeoning volunteer setups. When I have spoken to friends and colleagues about what is happening in Brent, they have frequently offered to provide a lending hand towards the project, whether this be through attendance at a fundraising event, by signing a petition or (more often than not) donating their own books. Companies are helping out too, for instance Friends of Barham Park Library recently took possession of large donations from prestigious organisations such as Usborne Books (Children’s Publisher of the Year) and the Healthy Planet charity.
The role of Brent Council
Brent Council’s lack of regard for the views of Brent residents on their plans for the borough’s libraries was clear from February 2011. This was when they decided to set a budget which assumed the library closures would go ahead, despite the consultation on the Libraries Transformation Project having weeks left to run. The testimonies I have received from those leading the volunteer libraries would suggest that Brent Council did nothing to support the setting up of community-led libraries under the Council’s previous leadership which governed until May of this year. In many cases, the Council has been deliberately obstructive to such libraries being set up in the area.
Brent Labour councillor James Powney makes his views clear about volunteer libraries in his diatribe of a blog roll. In one post he completely fails to acknowledge the efforts of those generous enough to give up their time to staff a fledgling community library in Blackheath. In the same post he also bizarrely includes a link to an article from the Blackheath Bugle, the tone of which is heavily critical towards his own colleagues in Lewisham! His interpretation of the latest figures for Brent Libraries visits and issues is a rather skewed one too, as several commentators on his blog have noted, blindly failing to take into account the closed libraries when comparing 2011-2012 figures for the borough to previous year’s figures (these were obtained via a Freedom of Information request). In actual fact, it has been disappointing to see the closures have resulted in a fall in visits of around 20% (from 836,962 to 683,333) contrary to the 1.5% reduction Mr. Powney has calculated by ignoring the six shut services.
Figures for the whole year (Oct – Sept 2011/12 compared to the same period in 2010/11) show a drop of just over 300,000 visitors with 200,000 fewer issues. James Powney even goes so far as to accuse the devoted campaigners from the projects outlined here of being partly responsible for driving away library users in Brent, suggesting “the huge negative publicity that the litigants generated in itself damaged library usage”. To his credit, Mr. Powney chooses to publish many of the comments made about the library closures on this blog. In his latest post on the subject, he has stated that he will carefully consider “a reasonable set of queries” put to him in the comments section of a previous post (“Kensal Green Puzzle” posted on 17 October). These were comments which accurately predicted the selling off of Kensal Rise and Cricklewood Libraries by All Souls for use as flats. Only time will tell whether Mr. Powney will be true to his word and address residents’ enraged complaints about the sale of these historic libraries.
Brent Council envisages use of libraries in the borough will have risen from current levels by 2014-15 but unlike other Councils, it has neglected to provide interim measures to cope with the shortfall in service provision. Margaret highlights those users who come to the pop-up library at Kensal Rise regularly and suffer from mobility problems, as well as those too young to travel on their own as particular victims of Brent’s library closures. She also notes how “there is very little in the community other than the library” and feels this building represents the “last remaining public space”. In his interview for the Public Library News website, Mr. Powney claims it is “important that Brent Libraries retain their brand value” as a case against community-run projects, seeing it as a case of quality over quantity, yet this would seem to belittle the concerns of individual communities on having the cultural heart of their areas and a place to go for the disenfranchised among them ripped away.
Partnerships & Communities
The answer to Brent’s woes may come in the partnerships formed out of these hardships. Kensal Rise has already joined up with Bilbary to provide ebooks through its website, with the help of library advocate Tim Coates. Campaigners are now also looking to work in partnership with trained staff wherever possible, as well as with other services in dual purpose or multi-purpose setups.
Partnerships are an area which the Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Select Committee report on library closures covered in some detail (including the possibility of co-operation between local authorities). The Committee says:
“Libraries are often hubs of local communities. While the provision of books and electronic access to information remain core tasks, libraries are often used for a far wider range of activities that benefit communities. Co-ordination with other service providers—especially in the areas of education and health—provides opportunities to enhance this. There are many examples of imaginative sharing of buildings and resources.”
It is still hard to tell whether the new leadership of Brent Council will result in the local authority taking a more flexible approach on this issue. Certainly since Muhammed Butt became Brent Council’s leader in May, the lines of communication have been more open. “There is a discussion now” says Margaret Bailey, who points to other London Councils, such as Lambeth as being more open to the idea of supporting community projects which incorporate libraries. The Labour Council has not previously been prepared to open talks about the possibility of libraries which are, at least in part, community run.
Volunteer libraries are, of course, a hugely contentious issue within the library sector as a whole. The CMS Committee is not keen on the idea of libraries which are wholly run by communities, stating that councils must continue to give volunteer libraries “the necessary support to maintain the service”.
Margaret Bailey herself argues that the Council has left the Kensal Rise community with no choice but to run the library themselves and moreover, like many other Brent campaigners, is staunchly opposed to the idea of volunteer run libraries, believing public services should be run by public servants.
The S.O.S. campaign continues…
Brent Council has not been receptive to the idea of reaching a compromise over these libraries in the past, resulting in clashes with campaigners at times and the imposition of substantial legal costs. It is the Council’s sheer lack of care and sympathy for the plight of Brent libraries under the previous regime that has been the real tragedy of the Brent Transformation Project. The eventual fate of the buildings at Kensal Rise and Cricklewood remains in the hands of All Souls but at least the College has insisted there will be a library presence in each case. Last month’s ‘Light of Learning’ event, healthy representation from library campaigners at the October 20th anti-cuts protest march and a potential shift in attitude on behalf of the Council have demonstrated there is still some hope, nonetheless, that Brent’s S.O.S. call may yet be answered.
(I am currently taking part in the CPD23 Things programme and was approached via my blog www.thewanderinglibrarian.blogspot.com to write something for Voices for the Library. I grew up in Brent and now work in an academic library. The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer. I can be contacted via Twitter @LibraryBod)