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