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Saving my library card in the hope of better times

Upper Norwood public libraries
Upper Norwood Library card circa 2006

I love this library card. It’s my membership card for Upper Norwood Joint Library in Crystal Palace, where I lived until recently. I’ve had a library card everywhere I’ve lived since the age of eight, but this library was quite my favourite. Housed in a purpose-built building of 1898, it is part of the high street and well used by members of the community of all ages – host to local history researchers, revising teenagers, elderly newspaper readers and toddlers’ groups.

On 31st March, Lambeth ‘decommissioned’ UNJL and made all its staff redundant. The service is to become The Crystal Palace Community Learning Hub, with (some of?) its books available for loan on one of its two floors and no dedicated librarians. (When I first published this blog yesterday, this was supposed to happen this Sunday, 1st May, but it’s since been announced the transfer will happen on 1st July.) I won’t bore you with all the twists and turns that led up to this situation, although as a former member of the campaign to save UNJL and the trust which will run the hub, I know quite a bit of the background. The library’s change of fortunes is part of the now notorious decision by Lambeth Council to turn some of the borough’s libraries into gyms, which led to the recent nine-day occupation of Carnegie Library in south London.

As leftfield as the idea of ‘gymbries’ is, the move is very much a sign of the times, in which councils, unwilling to bear the reputational consequences of out-and-out closures, are increasingly turning to the more oblique measures of dispensing with library staff and turning the buildings over to someone else, whether a private company or community group, to run. Such transfers tend to be accompanied by promises of an exciting new era in which we can have public libraries without the costs of public libraries. But campaigners see this as the ‘hollowing out’ of library services, in which reduced budgets, opening hours and staff in turn reduce the user-numbers used to justify the existence of the library. Countries still investing in their public libraries show how the story might be oh-so-different.

Despite having followed the dismantling of Britain’s public library network since the early days of the credit crunch, I still don’t understand the rationale. Libraries are, compared to other services, cheap to run, enormously popular and deliver multiple benefits in terms of education, health, community cohesion and poverty-reduction, as well as contributing to a vibrant local economy. The savings that can be made are small and in some cases may even be outweighed by the real costs of closing or transferring services. But for whatever reason, it’s clear that the public library service as we know it, with paid, knowledgable librarians, has fallen out of political fashion. Politicians don’t see its value and some councils, in a strange wave of cultural iconoclasm, seem to actively hate it.

My own family history makes me particularly aware of how quickly political fashions change. My great-great grandfather Thomas Greenwood was at the forefront of the Victorian movement to establish a national network of public libraries. In 1886 he published ‘Free Public Libraries: Their organisation, uses and management,’ a book which became the must-read text for those setting up a new library. The handbook distilled the lessons learnt and good practice culled from Greenwood’s compulsive visiting of the first wave of public libraries both at home and abroad.

Thomas Greenwood, author of 'Free Public Libraries'
Thomas Greenwood, author of ‘Free Public Libraries’

A central principle for him, alongside the importance of sufficient investment from the public purse, was the need for professional librarians. Employing ‘a good practical librarian,’ wrote Greenwood, was essential. His ‘salary … should not be begrudged, for upon him depends the future success or failure of the library.’

Now, only fifty years after the 1964 Public Libraries Act made local libraries part of councils’ statutory provision, librarianship seems to be a dying profession. A quarter of paid jobs in the library network have disappeared in the past five years, leaving expert observers in dismay about ‘a decimated and de-professionalised service’.

Yet while shortsighted councillors continue to dismantle the library network, the strength of popular feeling displayed up and down the land testifies to the achievements of Victorian pioneers such as Greenwood and Carnegie. Stories on the transformative effect of libraries on the lives of individuals abound, from ordinary families to well-known authors.

Is the tide starting to turn? In the wake of the Carnegie Occupation and public uproar about the planned ‘bookish gyms’, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is considering whether to formally investigate Lambeth to see whether it is meeting its statutory obligations. And, as I write, councillors in Hove are having a rethink about whether to close their purpose-built Carnegie Library.

So, in the week that I gave a talk at a family reunion about Greenwood’s legacy, I’m sad about the state of the nation’s libraries. But I’m also keeping alive a little hope, along with my UNJL library card. I’m saving it in the hope that the political world will see sense and that properly funded and staffed libraries will rise again.