Trashing libraries just a bit more

Critic Boyd Tonkin had a piece in last week’s Independent recounting the sad fate of his local library, Friern Barnet Library, in the hands of the enlightened council of the London Borough of Barnet. In this case, a group of volunteers have invaded this local library, which was, along with a number of others, slated to be closed. The volunteers have taken on the role of squatters, and are keeping the library running. The Council is currently trying to decide whether to have them evicted–since it’s a public building, that can’t just happen, so the Council is trying to decide what to do next. In this case, the Council is dominated by Conservatives, so it’s easy to see this as a part of a pattern of Conservative budget cuts. That, however, would be misleading—everyone’s doing it.

This follows by a few months an article by novelist Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books about her local council’s (Brent, in this case) successful attempts to close down her local library in Willesden Green. In fact, the Brent council want to tear the whole thing down and replace it with something smaller and less useful, so that they can build luxury condos apartments on the site. In this case the Council is dominated by Labour, and has been since 2010—in fact, the Conservatives haven’t run Brent Council since 1971. The excellent Local Library News site keeps track of closings and threatened closings, which, sadly, continue.

Meanwhile, our very own London Borough of Camden, as we had feared, moved last year to close down three libraries and turn them over to volunteers. These include my local library, now renamed the Keats Library, which we have discussed a couple of times before, as well as those in Belsize Park and Chalk Farm. The delicious irony here, of course, is that a borough council dominated by Labour is closing down the libraries in the three well-off areas of Camden. When we moved here, in 1998, the council then was also dominated by Labour—sorry, New Labour—but their hostility to local libraries was evident even then—or at least to the library in Hampstead. Not satisfied with the recent round of library gutting, the Camden Council is now moving on to Highgate, next door. The Camden Public Library Users Group website provides a sad chronology of all of this.

So now my own local library is a volunteer project as well. I’m not particularly worried. If there’s a part of London where you would find lots of people willing to put in the time and money to keep a local library going, it’s Hampstead. Hampstead, it should be noted, has certain advantages that other areas lack—specifically, an unparalleled collection of local writers. Here’s a list of the people who have spoken at the library over the past six years, most of whom live in the neighborhood, and the rest of whom aren’t all that far away:

Danny Abse, Martin Amis, Max Arthur, Diana Athill, Al Alvarez, Beryl Bainbridge, Joan Bakewell, Peter Barkworth, Julian Barnes, Martin Bell MP, Nicola Beauman, Melvyn Bragg, Prof. Jonathan Brostoff, Sir Anthony Caro, Judith Cherniak, Margaret Drabble, Lindsay Duncan, Elaine Feinstein, Sir Denis Forman, Victoria Glendinning, Valerie Grove, Ruth Fairlight, Ronald Hayman, Cicely Herbert, Prof. Eric Hobsbawn, Malcolm Holmes, Michael Holroyd, Prof. Ted Honderich, Gerald Isaaman, Helena Kennedy QC, John Le Carre, Doris Lessing, Maureen Lipman, Penelope Lively, Gavin Lyall, Keith Michel, Dr. Jonathan Miller, Deborah Moggach, Lee & Ruth Montague, Andrew Motion, John Julius Norwich, Julia Neuberger, Michael Palin, Sir Michael Palliser, Piers Plowright, Jill Purse, Stella and Denis Quilley, Michael Ridpath, Jancis Robinson, James Roose-Evans, Dr. Joseph Rotblat, Bernice Rubens, Prof. Rupert Sheldrake, Alan Sillitoe, Chris Smith M.P., Peter Stothard, Dr. N.O.T. Temple, Emma Thompson, Claire Tomalin, John Tusa, Christopher Wade, Sir Gerald Warner, Katherine Whitehorn, Dr. Lewis Wolpert

Still, all of this is irritating in many respects, not the least of which is the curtailment of hours when the children’s library is open. This was a thriving library in part because of the high number of children’s programs and families that attended them, and a number of people managed to keep them going, even after the highly popular children’s librarian was packed off my her superiors to stack boxes in the basement somewhere else. But now even these are in doubt.

But this is Hampstead. As long as there’s a building to hold the books, there will be people to help keep a library. What I’m more worried about are many of the other libraries around the country that are being turned over to volunteer organizations, many of which just aren’t going to be starting out with the level of local support a place like Hampstead can offer. There are already stories about these libraries having to cut hours sharply because of a lack of volunteers, or whatever. Local councillors can then claim some vindication. Screw that. The whole point of public libraries is that they’re public. And the public deserves better than the uncertainty of whether its local library can muddle along with whatever local volunteers, however dedicated, can cobble together. Almost by definition, some of these volunteer-run libraries will be better than others–and those in poorer areas are likely to be feeling the brunt of he impact of these closures. Rachel Cooke over at The Guardian warned us that this would happen, and she was remarkably prescient.

If I were feeling at all generous to the elected Council members of the Borough of Camden, I would mention that in some respects they may have been a bit blindsided here. The Library building itself is not owned by the Borough—rather, it’s owned by the City of London, which apparently had a different plan initially. Specifically, the library is immediately next door to, and shares property with, the Keats House, a popular tourist destination, and, it must be said, a lovely spot. And the City of London, in its wisdom, was contemplating a plan that would turn the library building int a Keats Conference Center—in other words, a money-maker. Which is why the negotiations dragged on. As it is, even though the Borough stumped up some money, and contributed the collection, the operators of the new Keats Library were only able to get a two year lease from the City of London. Which means that, yes, after that two year period there’s every chance that the City might not renew the lease. Which means, of course, no library in Hampstead, London’s most literary neighborhood.

But I’m not feeling that generous to the elected Council members of the Borough of Camden, because this is a decision that never should have been made in the first place, for reason we have outlined in our previous posts. But there are also a couple of broader issues as well. First, what accounts for the animus towards libraries, particularly among Labour council members? It’s at times like this that I start to understand why Margaret Thatcher wanted to take power away from the local councils—whether they’re corrupt or just incompetent, it’s difficult to believe they actually know what they’re doing, especially since so often what they’re doing seems to be directly against the well-being of the citizens they’re supposed to represent. And I’m the guy around here who keeps pushing localism. Ironically, it’s Labour that is responsible for most of the library closures the past several years—not the Tories. However, the Tories themselves have not exactly behaved all that well here either, in spite of claims to the contrary–see here, especially the comments. Labour has pride of place among the offenders, but none of the parties are exactly covering themselves with glory. However, it also has to be said that it’s the national cuts to the Councils that have given a number of local Councils the excuse they have long been seeking to close some libraries down—Camden being a case in point.

And why aren’t we having a broader conversation about what we need, and what the local and national governments should provide? Lord knows I pay enough in taxes—why can’t I have a public library? Why can’t I even have that discussion, instead of a bunch of stale assumptions from the Chicago School and irrelevant talking points about how everything privately run is inherently more efficient—the recent security debacle at the Olympics should have put paid to that argument. And yet, we somehow keep not having that discussion.

Doesn’t the state—or at least the local council—have an obligation here? Well, yes, they do—here in the UK, there is a statutory responsibility for library services, in fact, which a number of councils have gotten quite creative with. And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about my post office. What’s going on there? Both the US and the UK governments seem determined to trash local post offices. Both countries are now contemplating eliminating deliveries on Saturdays. What? Honestly, can’t we just recognize that there are some services that governments must provide, whether or not they turn a profit for the government? Why does everything have to be privatization fodder?

I don’t know why we’re not having that conversation. For the past three decades, both parties in the US, and more recently here in the UK, have behaved as if this isn’t a conversation even bothering with. Look at the organized campaign against organized labor in the US. In the UK, the default position now appears to be that the postal service needs to turn a profit. Why is this? Postal services are not a business. They shouldn’t be a business. They are often part of the fabric that knits rural communities together. Even in Denmark, where the postal service (Post Danmark) has been partially privatized, it’s still 75% owned by the Danish government, and 22% by a private equity group, with employees holding the other 3%. Still, from time to time there are breathless articles in the financial press regarding the potential sale of the Royal Mail to any number of possible parties—usually, it’s TMT, now renamed PostNL, the privatized Dutch mail operator, probably on the assumption that since it’s been privatized, it’s better run. What evidence there is for the proposition has yet to be presented. PostNL has been privatized, yes, but the Dutch government has pretty stringent targets that the company must meet—and this includes Saturday deliveries.

In the case of libraries, I guess I wouldn’t really expect anyone to seriously think about privatizing them–but, to my surprise, that’s exactly what’s happening. America has such an ingrained tradition of anti-intellectualism that nothing in this space surprises me anymore. Historian Richard Hofstadter devoted his life to studying it, and even wrote an entire (and worthy, if I remember correctly) book on the subject. But in this country, where the major book award is not only televised, but bookmakers offer odds on the likely winner, literature is infused with the national character in a way that most Americans wouldn’t dream of. It’s just part of the territory. And the cavalier treatment of libraries, of all places, just flies in the face of that. Yes, obviously, the solution is to elect better local council members. And at least around here, the library issue is going to be a campaign issue for many of the council members who voted for this preposterous library scheme. Good–I hope they lose.

9 replies »

  1. There are also moves afoot here in the US to close libraries. Mostly it’s come in the form of closing branches and thus making library access more and more difficult for citizens – with the end in sight, I believe of eventually strangling main branches of libraries because they are often downtown in cities.

    My own rural NC county has one public library – it’s terrific, and from a population standpoint (fewer than 28,000 people in the entire county, located in the NC mountains) probably justifiable – but I can’t help think that a couple of branches might be very good in an area where travel can be a problem in the winter….

  2. Hey, America is also improving libraries in areas. Adams County Library here in Colorado used to SUCK. Short hours, dingy buildings, and just awful selection of books. In 2004 they split off from the county and renamed the library system. It’s still funded with tax dollars, but it’s outside the County budget and they have gotten their own separate tax revenue approved by voters. They’ve completely turned the libraries around and built two new ones, bringing us to seven. Now they have small cafes, play areas for kids, e-books, special events and a newsletter, automated check out and check in, and wide comfortable spaces with lots of skylights to sit and relax. They are trying to be a “community hub” not strictly a place for books. After years of not stepping foot into a library I finally got a library card again yesterday.

    Separating the revenue stream for the library system from competing demands for county money and setting it up with it’s own forward thinking board really made a difference.

    • Lara: this is great to hear. As folks around here might (or might not) know, Adams County is home to some of the most daunting socio-economic conditions in the region (my former sis-in-law taught in the Adams 50 district, I think it was, and her stories were harrowing at times). It’s nice to see the citizens investing more in their intellectual infrastructure, as it were.

  3. Jim–yup, that’s it. What councils are doing is closing branch libraries, so that people have to use the main ones. But, like North Carolina, these are often difficult to get to, especially for families with younger children.

    Lara Amber–that’s very clever. Is that something peculiar to Colorado law that allows for this sort of arrangement, I wonder, or could it be expanded to other states. It coudn’t happen here, though–the way stuff gets funded just wouldn’t allow for it–it’s all much more centralized than in the US. We don’t have states, for example! So the money flows from Westminster to the Councils, who get the final say in allocation. That’s sort of what Camden is trying to do with the main library for the Borough–turn it into a community hub. That has advantages and disadvantages, obviously. But one of the main issues there is that, again, it’s just difficult to get to without some significant jaunts on public transportation. You couldn’t possibly drive there–there’s no nearby parking. What’s being given up here is the notion of neighborhood libraries, and that’s a shame.

  4. Well the revenue stream is something that I think any state in the Union can do, just get it on the ballot for the voters. So Adams County voters voted to approve a tax for it. (We also vote on taxes for new fire department buildings, to increase funding for our school district, to put more money towards light rail, etc). Some of those taxes have a built in sunset “to have a sales tax of 0.05 percent for 7 years to pay for building a new stadium”, some are permanent. It could be a local addition to sales tax, it could be a increase to property tax, etc.

    Usually when we vote we get city, county, and state issues to vote on in addition to candidates in city, county, state, and national elections.