Our bookish gyms correspondent GENE BRODIE hears that the Upper Norwood Library Trust’s plans for the brave new future of a volunteer-run public library might not be as definite as you might expect, with their takeover of the building due in little more than one month
The Upper Norwood Library Trust, the organisation of volunteers which is taking over the running of the building on Westow Hill from May 1, issued a statement over the Easter holiday weekend in which they called for donations of £100 towards the running of the facilities.
The Trust also confirmed that they would be running a series of fee-charging events – and have the library’s bookcases placed on castors so that they might be wheeled out of the way for money-raising activities.
Upper Norwood Library has been run jointly by Lambeth and Croydon councils for more than a century as a professionally staffed, largely free service for the residents of the Crystal Palace area. Lambeth and Croydon are continuing to fund Upper Norwood Library, each providing £85,000 per year for the next two years. But as part of Labour-run Lambeth Council’s controversial programme of cuts, it announced a fortnight ago that professional staff would be withdrawn after April 30, and the building handed over to be a volunteer-run, self-service facility. Three other libraries in Lambeth face closure or conversion into “bookish gyms”.
In Croydon, which is staging its second library consultation in four years, events at Upper Norwood are regarded by senior Labour councillors as “an exciting experiment”. You can guess what that means.
On Saturday evening, Bryher Scudamore, one of the Upper Norwood Library trustees, published a lengthy statement on social media in which she referred, repeatedly, to her organisation’s “business plan” for the library premises.
“That plan – which frustratingly, has had to change a number of times over the past few years with the changing priorities of local authorities – has enabled us to win the confidence of both funding local authorities (Lambeth and Croydon),” Scudamore, a former BBC executive, wrote.
In the statement, Scudamore suggests that the Trust will seek to use the council funding they receive to hire professional library staff themselves – something which is thought to be a new development, and which had not been discussed with the Save Upper Norwood Library Campaigners before the statement was issued.
Scudamore also announced that, “We intend to increase the opening hours”, and the bookshelves on wheels idea, “so that we can make the space more flexible”.
Scudamore wrote: “We have had to negotiate very hard with both local authorities… The Upper Norwood Library Trust will have £170,000 per year to run and staff the building with a professional paid team who will be supported by volunteers, of all ages, to whom we intend to give a wide variety of opportunities.”
Library campaigners across the country tend to be suspicious of the “volunteer model” for public libraries, as they see it as a means of eroding the influence of professional staff and undermining the overall library service.
But the statement from the trustee appeared to contain some contradictions, highlighting the lack of clarity about the plans for the library’s future.
In one sentence, Scudamore said: “The building will house the library provision, which Lambeth will supply, which will consist of library staff, books, computers and library sessions.”
And with her next sentence, Scudamore revealed that the Trust continues “.. to negotiate with Lambeth Council on exactly what they will provide”. No amount of carefully crafted business plan can possibly prepare for spending on professional staff if the Trust – even at this late stage – admits it does not know “exactly” what Lambeth Council intends to provide.
Lambeth’s statement on March 21 was terse but clear: Upper Norwood Library “will become self-service”, and the building will be run “as a community hub”. There was no mention of providing any professional staff.
Scudamore appears to believe that the intransigent Lambeth Council will somehow reverse its position. “We have asked for a maintained spend on book stock (the same as in previous years), library staff in the building at all times, and the ability for customers to order books and talk with librarians. We believe that residents should continue to lobby Lambeth to ensure that happens – we know you all care about those issues very much.”
Scudamore also admits that the Trust will be using the building to operate paid-for events and services.
“It has been suggested that we use the budget we are receiving to provide the library as it is today but we cannot in all conscience take the money and spend it in exactly the same way. Such a choice would not be sustainable and in two years the library would once again be under threat. We want to improve the services. That is why we will use the building to provide paid-for activities, grant-funded activities and anything else that we can think of that will allow us to provide a thriving, sustainable service to our community, which will house the library for many years to come.”
Library staff throughout Lambeth staged a two-day strike last week in protest against the council’s cuts and closures. The uncertainty of the future at Upper Norwood is hardly likely to persuade librarians to hang around if there are more secure positions on offer with other local authorities, something even Scudamore acknowledged in her statement: “We know only too well what a difficult time they have had over the past few years.”
Scudamore wrote: “It will be different – things will change because they have to. There will be self-service machines (and why not? – why have staff stamping books when their expertise could be used in other, better ways?), there will be volunteers – of course, because volunteering opens doors and provides great outcomes for all sorts of local people – and we ask for your help and support with this change over the next months and years.”
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