Our prized community spaces are being replaced by private gyms as austerity bites
I’m an A-Level student taking English Literature, History and Theatre Studies and books have always been a large part of my life. Most of my reading materials were borrowed from Carnegie Library in Lambeth, which was gifted to the people of Lambeth by Andrew Carnegie in 1902. However, on 31st March, it was officially closed by Lambeth Council to re-open as a ‘healthy living centre’: a fee-paying gym with an unstaffed ‘lounge’ containing an unconfirmed number of books.
Local community members occupied the library for ten days after the closure in protest, but the council still insists that funding the library through a gym is all they can afford. Unfortunately, this is not the only bad news. Of the ten libraries in Lambeth, Minet Library was also closed that day to be turned into a healthy living centre. Upper Norwood Library is currently at risk of losing its staff, while Waterloo Library is due to be moved to a temporary location and then closed.
‘Defend The Ten’ is a campaign organised by Friends of Lambeth Libraries group, who are fighting to keep the libraries open and staffed. This would be made possible through an alternative proposal put forward by Lambeth’s head librarian, which Lambeth Council has so far rejected. The problems with the reasons behind this rejection are discussed in more detail on Defend the Ten’s website, but Lambeth Council’s own plans have been unclear in many ways.
I feel strongly about the closure of libraries for a number of reasons. Aside from the fact that the availability of books helped me develop a love of reading, which has helped me at school in so many ways, Carnegie Library provides a quiet, solitary space dedicated to study for anyone who needs it. In my experience, school libraries are noisy, busy and full of distractions. As far as I know, Lambeth Council has been vague about the amount of study space that will be available when Carnegie Library re-opens, but Lambeth’s libraries were already brimming with people before two of them were closed. This situation will not be helped by reducing the space available, which is almost unavoidable if gyms are installed.
Books are so often a better source of information than the internet since the publishing process gives a reliability that cannot always be found online, but as well as this, libraries also give people internet and computer access for free. From browsing university websites to booking appointments and searching for jobs, using the internet has become a necessity in our society, but in most places it costs money and some members of our community are not able to navigate it alone. During the protest, I spoke to a woman who chose not to have her own computer and relied on libraries for when she needed one. Library computers offer people that choice, and more importantly, prevent people who are already struggling financially from dealing with another expense.
When I was growing up, a central part of the Carnegie Library were the librarians themselves. They were always happy to check if another library had the Harry Potter book I was so desperate to read. They would encourage me to take part in summer reading challenges and commend me on the number of books I had read, and after doing work experience in a book shop, I now know it involves a lot of hard work I never gave them enough credit for. If plans for an unstaffed ‘lounge’ do materialise, future children won’t get any of these benefits, and the whole place will become uninviting, disorganised and hard to use.
Additionally, the council has made it very unclear as to whether children under the age of 16 will be allowed in the library without an accompanying adult. There were a number of under-16s who took part in the occupation, from GCSE students who use the library regularly to children who come to borrow books. If Lambeth Council do not allow under-16s access to the library, it will not only deny many children the opportunity to read and study, but it would also directly oppose what the community wants and needs.
For the most part, Lambeth Council’s response to the protests has not been a good one. Early on in the occupation of Carnegie Library, police were stationed outside as if a protest including elderly people, babies and children with their parents was going to become violent or disrespectful. Security guards were placed outside the entrance, not allowing anyone to re-enter once they had left. I saw food, kindly donated for those inside, being passed through the bars of the gate, where occupiers stood talking to press and other protesters. Unfortunately, Lambeth councillors have also proved just how out-of-touch they are with the communities they are meant to represent.
Following multiple protests, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will investigate Lambeth Council’s plans. Under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, councils have to maintain a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service, and I sincerely hope that Lambeth Council will be prevented from carrying out their plans.
Image from: http://bit.ly/1SQIrh5
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