GENE BRODIE, our hard-working bookish gyms correspondent, reports on the latest twist in the tale of the Upper Norwood Library, a saga so full of back-stabbing and manoeuvrings that it makes Game of Thrones seem chaste and innocent
Library campaigners were out in force along Westow Hill in Crystal Palace on Saturday, protesting again at the Conservative Government’s austerity cuts being applied to the service.
The campaigners were unimpressed with an 11th-hour announcement by Lambeth Council that it is to staff Upper Norwood Joint Library for 35 hours per week for two years, dismissing the news as little more than a calculated sop.
Upper Norwood Library is funded jointly by Lambeth and Croydon councils, which provide £85,000 per year each.
But as part of its plan to close two public libraries and convert two more in its borough into “bookish gyms”, Lambeth’s “co-operative” council wanted to hand over the running of Upper Norwood to a volunteer trust with effect from May 1, withdrawing all professional staff and making the library into a “self-service” facility.
With barely a month to go to the handover, the back-of-a-fag-packet plans from Lambeth had even left the Upper Norwood Library Trust guessing over what levels of professional librarian support they might expect.
Then, with less than a week to go before the handover, and Lambeth decided to extend the current staffing arrangement until July, and thereafter to provide 35 hours a week of librarian staff cover, for at least the next two years.
Bryher Scudamore, a trustee, announced the news, stating, “The Trust and Lambeth Council have been talking for years about how best to transfer the library to the community and, while it has at times been a frustrating process, the vision for the future now looks bright…
“Lambeth Council and the Upper Norwood Library Trust are confident that the new arrangement will provide a great service hosted by, and run for, the local community in Upper Norwood – and at a more sustainable cost to the council, which is facing severe budget pressures.
“The library service will still be managed by Lambeth with Lambeth’s library staff providing 35 hours of library staff cover per week for two years, with a review after a year. This is what the Trust has requested to be able to complete their business model and will assist the Trust whilst they establish the new service.”
The Trust’s chair also commented, readily adopting the circumlocution so favoured by Lambeth Council, referring to “vibrant” and “thriving” “community hubs”, but avoiding mention of the experienced, professional library staff who face an uncertain future over their jobs.
“We’re absolutely delighted to have secured a level of professional library staffing within the building over the next two years and thank Lambeth for their desire to support our vision of a thriving community hub with a brilliant library at its heart,” Laura Wright said. “We know that both authorities are battling with austerity measures and so we are delighted with this outcome. We will continue to work on behalf of the local community to create a vibrant place for the community to enjoy, with not only a staffed library but new cultural and educational activities.”
But local residents, past and present library staff and even two former chairs of the UNLT claim to have seen through Lambeth’s soothing rhetoric.
They say that the late change in plan is a calculated attempt to undermine the local campaign, and was announced just days before Saturday’s planned demonstration in Crystal Palace and was prompted by a council by-election in neighbouring Gipsy Hill, following the death of a Labour councillor.
“A library without staff is not a library,” the Defend The Ten campaign said in a leaflet distributed to passers-by on Saturday.
According to one member of Lambeth’s librarian staff, the 35 hours is equivalent to one full-time or two part-time employees, and is seems that these will be provided from Lambeth’s staff pool, rather than any dedicated librarian working at Upper Norwood. The librarian said, “The current staff have taken, or are taking redundancy, or will be redeployed from July 1.”
“It is great that Upper Norwood library users will have an extra two months of their library,” the Defend The Ten said, “but one staff member simply cannot replace the service delivered by the five professional staff who currently work at the library so diligently.
“This ‘level of professional library staffing’ simply cannot deliver ‘a brilliant library’ as the Trust is now telling us.”
Alex Klaushofer, a former chair of the Trust, said, “The claims that have been made about the future of the library in recent months do not give a full, accurate picture. This is not helpful to the work of the Trust – it creates false expectations which can only be disappointed once you step into the library building and find that things are not as rosy as presented.
“Until recently I visited the library almost every week, as a regular library user but also, as a former trustee, concerned to get a picture of what was happening. I repeatedly found that the reality was different from the public statements. Others will surely be doing this and finding that, one librarian from the general Lambeth pool, does not ‘save’ the library.”
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