The past week has been both a sad and
inspiring one for lovers of libraries.
As I write, the occupation of Carnegie Library in London’s Herne Hill is in its fourth day. Last Thursday 31st March, some sixty local residents of all ages and walks of life made camp there in a last-ditch attempt to stop Lambeth turning it into a gymnasium. (Some background, in case you missed it, is here.) The protestors argue that the library, founded by Andrew Carnegie a hundred years ago, belongs to the community and is not the council’s to dispose of.
Carnegie was a contemporary of Thomas Greenwood, a Victorian public library campaigner and my great-great-grandfather. Greenwood’s biography tells of the battles he and his fellow pioneers fought to establish a free public library at the heart of every community. They understood that combating poverty was about more than having enough to eat: in a truly thriving, inclusive society everyone needs access to education, knowledge and the life of the mind. In doing so, these nineteenth-century progressives faced enormous opposition from the conservatives of their day, who bitterly resisted the idea that public taxes should pay for books for the poor.
So I am sad beyond description to witness how, only fifty years after the Public Libraries Act of 1964, a group of Labour councillors is dismantling the public library service in my former stomping ground of south London. They do so in the face of clear, sustained opposition from the local communities concerned – opposition which illustrates how far our Victorian forebears succeeded in transforming social attitudes. And lives: this piece and these comments from Carnegie library users are testament to how much difference a local library makes to individuals.
Yet I am inspired by the actions of the Carnegie protestors, including all those outside the building who are doing their best to support them. The politicians may have forgotten why they were elected, but the library campaigners of our times are remembering the future and making our ancestors proud.